New York Adopts Restaurant Cleanliness Ratings. Will the U.S. Follow?

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The New York City Board of Health on Tuesday passed a regulation requiring the city's 24,000 restaurants to prominently post their cleanliness ratings, a move sure to have repercussions far beyond the banks of the Hudson.

While these ratings have long been available online, the new system will use an easy-to-understand letter-based grading system: "A" restaurants have fewer than 14 health-code violation points, and anything more than 28 will earn a "C."

What's most surprising about this regulation is that it's taken so long. New York is a restaurant city with a near-infinite array of culinary options. Recognizing the dining scene's power over New York's consumption habits, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent much of the last eight years battling its less-healthy tendencies.

After banishing indoor smoking in 2003, he took on trans fats in 2006 and, in 2008, required that franchised restaurants inform customers about their menus' calorie counts. While each of these moves occasioned massive grumbling, restaurateurs and patrons eventually caved in and accepted -- and occasionally embraced -- the inevitable.

Rats in the Taco Bell

In some ways, restaurant cleanliness is a departure for the crusading mayor. Unlike smoking or obesity, the relationship of cleanliness to chronic health problems isn't well understood, even though more than 10,000 New York restaurant customers a year go to emergency rooms for food-related illnesses.

Then there's the matter of city pride. Whether it's parks, zoos, museums or baseball teams, New Yorkers don't like to come in second. But in 2007, millions of TV and YouTube viewers were treated to the spectacle of a Manhattan Taco Bell overrun by rats. Suddenly, the Big Apple found itself saddled with the painful distinction of being the No. 1 city for avoiding Taco Bell.

On the bright side, New York's sense of humor was also on display, as onlookers in the video cheered the boldest rats and loudly expressed their disgust with Taco Bell. Even so, the restaurant was closed, and the city's Board of Health received a very public serving of humble pie.

But Taco Bell's rat race was far from an isolated episode. I live in New York, and I've had my own restaurant run-in with the fuzzy little members of Rattus norvegicus, and believe me, it wasn't nearly as charming as Ratatouille. One day, as my wife and I were waiting for takeout from our favorite neighborhood burrito joint, she spotted a rat in the dining room. To her credit, the owner screamed when I pointed the little gray guy out to her, but it didn't change the fact that our appetites rapidly disappeared, along with our appreciation for the restaurant. It closed a little while later.

Calorie Counts

The proposed restaurant postings won't make New York a hygiene leader. South Carolina has had a visible rating system since 1995, and Los Angeles has been posting letter grades since 1998. Sacramento uses a color-coded system that's also available to the public. In Los Angeles, the move to a ratings system was followed by a steep increase in restaurant cleanliness and a sharp decline in hospitalizations for food-borne illness.

Then again -- without casting aspersions on South Carolina, Sacramento or even Los Angeles -- New York occupies a unique place in the American cultural landscape, and many areas have followed its lead in making restaurants healthier. Its 2008 calorie-posting law inspired proposals across the country, as did its trans fats ruling. And while it would be reductive to give the city credit for the healthy fast-food trend, the New York calorie postings were almost immediately followed by the arrival of healthier options at McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks and other restaurant chains.

An even more interesting trend was the emergence of self-monitoring. After the New York calorie-posting decision, Yum Brands (YUM), the corporate owner of Pizza Hut, KFC and -- yes -- Taco Bell, announced plans to post calorie counts at all of its restaurants. While Yum claimed that the move was in response to customer demand, not legal pressure, the fact that the decision came just nine months after the passage of the New York regulations doesn't seem entirely coincidental.

Now that New York is thinking about restaurant hygiene ratings, will Yum's Taco Bell -- home of cheap burritos and well-fed rats -- conveniently decide to make the ratings national? As a fan of the occasional chalupa, I can only hope so.

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