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NYK: Hand Touched Sashimi Tuna Must Be Dumped United States, March 8, 12

Restaurant owners turned out in force to a City Council hearing Wednesday to voice their frustrations with a letter-grading system they pronounced punitive, arbitrary and expensive.

More than 200 people filled the council chambers, at times jeering and prompting Speaker Christine Quinn to threaten to clear out the room if it continued.

Eventually the restaurateurs took to waving their hands in the air as a sign of silent applause when someone said something they agreed with.

The outbursts highlighted a deep-seeded frustration with a system that Mayor Michael Bloomberg pronounced a success just a day earlier.

More than 85 people signed up to speak at the hearing.

Scott Rosenberg, owner of Sushi Yasuda, told the story of $10,000 worth of sushi-grade tuna that was destroyed because it was deemed to be contaminated because it was handled by bare, rather than gloved, hands.

“We were told, ‘Shut up, stand back.’ The tuna, over $10,000 worth of tuna, was thrown in a garbage bag and the inspector poured bleach all over it,” he said.

He added: “Any sushi chef worth his or her soy sauce will faithfully use bare hands to prepare sushi.”

Jeffrey Bank, CEO of the Alicart Restaurant Group, said he supports a letter-grading system, but a reformed one. He complained about frequent rule changes he doesn’t learn about until the time of an inspection.

“Don’t tell me today that tomatoes can’t be ripened outside of a refrigerator now even though I did it for 22 years,” he said. “Don’t tell me today that olive oil can’t be left on the line even though I could do it for 22 years. Two little things, boom, I’m down to a B.”

The City Council solicited anonymous responses to a survey about the restaurant inspection in January, and nearly 1,300 people responded. Sixty-seven percent of the restaurant owners who responded had received A grades, and 59.1% of them rated the system as poor. Overall, about 66% of respondents rated the system poor, and about 68% said the system had increased their costs significantly.

“There seems to be a lack of fairness and an abundance of inconsistency throughout the food industry inspection process,” said Ms. Quinn at a news conference before the hearing. “Why, if the majority of restaurants...are getting A’s, are the average violation points per restaurants going up? Those are inconsistent facts. You really have to ask yourself, is revenue generation the point here?”

Rolled out in the summer of 2010, the restaurant-grading system doles out letter grades of A, B or C based on the number of violation points earned in inspections related to cleanliness and food-safety practices. Violation points also result in fines that restaurants must pay.

The brunt of complaints from those in the industry center on charges that inspections are increasing in frequency, that the rules are confusing and that inspectors tend to take an adversarial stance when they come in to do an inspection.

Council members grilled the city’s health commissioner, Thomas Farley, on the intricacies of the system.

Mr. Farley testified that salmonella cases have decreased 14% since letter grading began. He said that even though fine revenue has increased in recent years, in the last two quarters of the current fiscal year the amount of money collected from violations has fallen. “The restaurant letter-grading program is working,” he testified.