Greenfield Grills Health Commissioner at Council Hearing on Restaurant Inspections

The following is a press release from the office of City Councilman David Greenfield:

New York – Councilman David G. Greenfield (D-Brooklyn) questioned New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley at a City Council oversight hearing last Wednesday over issues regarding the restaurant inspection process in an attempt to get answers to the many complaints he has heard from restaurant owners in recent months, including at a town hall meeting he hosted in his south Brooklyn district last month that was attended by representatives from over 80 local eateries.

“Like most New Yorkers, I like the grading system. However, I believe the city has been using the grading system as an excuse to fine hardworking restaurant owners and is simply trying to generate revenue,” said Greenfield, whose research concluded that fines have more than doubled in the last ten years in New York City. Tellingly, the administration’s preliminary budget for next year has an increase in fines already budgeted in. “I’m all for clean restaurants, however, I’m against putting our best restaurants out of business by increasing fines for minor infractions like forgetting to cover a light bulb in a storage closet,” Greenfield explained.

Greenfield’s main concerns include the fact that restaurant inspections peak at the end of fiscal quarters and the sharp increase in fines collected, which at $42 million in Fiscal Year 2011 have more than doubled since 2005 and increased by nearly $10 million in just the past year. Feedback from restaurant owners at last week’s Council hearing, Greenfield’s town hall meeting last month and the City Council survey make it clear that there are significant questions surrounding the inspection process that must be addressed in order to restore industry confidence in the system.

During Wednesday’s hearing, which was held to announce the results of a recent citywide survey of restaurant owners, Greenfield directly questioned Commissioner Farley on three specific issues: Why restaurant owners are fined for violations that do not pertain to food preparation or safety, such as for having an uncovered light bulb in a storage closet, why so many restaurants are re-inspected just days or weeks after receiving an “A” grade, and why different health inspectors have different rules and standards. For example, the owner of a pizza establishment at Greenfield’s town hall meeting last month said an inspector indiscriminately used bleach to destroy a large shipment of cheese that had just arrived because the inspector claimed it was not at the correct temperature. The owner begged to return the cheese to the supplier but the inspector refused, causing a loss of thousands of dollars. The next week a different inspector told the owner that he would not have thrown the cheese out. In such cases, owners have no recourse when the inspector acts incorrectly. Unfortunately, Dr. Farley failed to directly or adequately answer any of Greenfield’s three questions.

In addition, Dr. Farley declined Greenfield’s request that he publicly announce that fines will no longer be issued for violations not pertaining to food safety provided they are rectified immediately, such as in the case of a local restaurant owner who was issued a violation for a wet floor he had just mopped. Greenfield also questioned the massive powers given to inspectors, including allowing them to destroy food ingredients on-site.

“We’re talking about a grading system that has run amok and left many restaurant owners frustrated. These small business owners are the backbone of our city and deserve a fair health inspection process that prioritizes public safety over fines and revenue. I support the letter grade system, but it needs to be implemented in a much fairer way that protects the rights and interests of both restaurant owners and the general public,” said Greenfield.

“Many of the complaints we heard echoed what I heard from the restaurant owners who attended my town hall meeting last month, and I’m hopeful that many of the issues will be resolved. I look forward to working with Speaker Christine Quinn, my colleagues on the Council and restaurant owners to make sure these much-needed reforms happen before it is too late for many of our favorite establishments,” added Greenfield.

City Councilman David G. Greenfield represents Council District 44, which includes Borough Park, as well as parts of Midwood and Bensonhurst.

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