‘It’s Inspectors Gone Wild’

032607 article sitdown ‘It’s Inspectors Gone Wild’Location: The Feb. 23 video of rats overrunning a health-inspector-approved KFC/Taco Bell in Greenwich Village triggered a city Health Department crackdown, resulting in three times as many daily restaurant closures as usual.

Hunt: It’s actually four times as many.

O.K., four times. Isn’t it about time the city put some teeth into the inspection process?

Well, there have been plenty of teeth in the inspection process. As a matter of fact, if you take a look at Health Trac—it’s a thing on the Internet that shows the level of fines that they have assessed over the last number of years. The most recent information that’s available goes from January through September of 2006.

During that period of time, they collected $16,338,000 from restaurants for health violations. The great majority of these things were things that were in no way an immediate threat to the public health.

Such as?

Such as improper lids on a waste can in a public restroom, a fluorescent light that didn’t have shielding, a wiping cloth that was on top of a stainless-steel counter instead of in a container of cleaning fluid. Stuff like that—which makes many of my members think the emphasis has been placed on fund-raising [for the government] rather than actual protection of the public.

Your organization has vowed to investigate complaints of overzealous inspectors.

“Investigate” isn’t the proper word. I get calls from people complaining—and this is not just recently, this is over a long period of time—you know, “I had a health inspection today, and the inspector came in and looked at everything and complimented me on what a nice job I was doing and then said, ‘But you understand, I have to write you up for something.’”

That sentiment’s been around for a long time. Now it’s instead: “I have to write you up for a lot of things.”

I have been assured by various officials that they haven’t changed their procedures; they haven’t instructed the inspectors to become overzealous. It’s just business as usual. However, if you look at the situation, there was obviously the rat incident, which caused them to suspend an inspector. That was followed shortly thereafter by a picture of an inspector asleep while he was supposed to be doing an inspection. Frankly, it’s only human nature that these inspectors are gonna go wild. It’s like Girls Gone Wild—only it’s Inspectors Gone Wild.

We now have a smoking ban, a trans-fat ban, new menu-labeling requirements. Is Mayor Bloomberg a bigger threat to the industry than Times food critic Frank Bruni?

Actually, the real zealot here is Dr. Thomas Frieden, the commissioner of health and mental hygiene. I have had conversations with Dr. Frieden; we have a big difference in philosophy as to how a health inspection should be conducted and what its purpose is. He feels that the only way he can get compliance on the health code is through fines.

In other words, he feels that if you don’t make the fines heavy, many restaurant operators really wouldn’t care whether they make corrections or not—which is absolutely not the case.

My philosophy on inspections and what is done in the great many jurisdictions other than New York City is an educational process, wherein an inspector comes in, goes through the operation, points out the violations or the things that should be corrected, explains why they’re violations, explains how to correct it, and gives the operator a chance to make that correction before a fine is levied.

Your organization also has lobbied for the city to rethink its policy on garbage disposals in restaurants.

As an industry, we’ve been trying for years to get the City of New York, the Department of Environmental Protection, to allow restaurants to have a commercial garbage-disposal unit for wet waste—for putrescent waste, I believe is the proper term. Food waste. This is what attracts vermin.

Why can’t restaurants have garbage disposals?

Because the Department of Environmental Protection thinks it will screw up the wastewater system. However, interestingly enough, the City of Philadelphia requires it. Their regulation says that, before you get a dumpster permit to put your garbage in, you have to have a garbage-disposal unit, so that the food waste goes into the wastewater rather than into the dumpster.

Anyway, we’ve been trying to convince the city just to do a pilot program to prove that it would not affect the water in the Hudson River the way they fear it would. That would certainly help in terms of the rat problem.