Sometimes it's nice to take a break from cooking and washing dishes and go out for Sunday breakfast, or maybe a nice steak dinner in the middle of the week to ease some of the stress from work. Maybe a few days a week you eat lunch at or get take-out from restaurants near work.

Have you ever wondered if the food you're served is safe to eat? You may be surprised to find out that your trust in your favorite restaurant may be misplaced.

New York Eateries Cheat with Health Scores

In June 2011, health inspectors busted hundreds of New York City restaurants for ignoring the City's law (PDF) requiring them to post the results of their latest health inspections. The inspection results include a letter grade - A, B or C. Just like when you were in school, you want an A grade.

The grading system takes into account all aspects of food safety, from proper handling and storage of food to proper cleaning of plates and utensils.

How They Skirted the Law

City restaurants and eateries are supposed to post their letter grades near the front entrance (within five feet of it) and between 4 to 6 feet above the ground. The idea, of course, is to make sure patrons can see the grade.

Most restaurants violated the law by not posting their grades anywhere - and most of them had C grades. About 100 establishments posted their grades in the wrong place, maybe by accident, or maybe to make it hard for patrons to see.

Most Restaurants in US are Inspected

Practically every restaurant in the US undergoes some sort of health and safety inspection. That's because of the high risk of passing on food-borne illnesses. There's no federal agency in charge of these inspections. Although the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) gives some guidance, restaurant health and safety matters are left up to state and local government agencies.

The Laws are Different

While inspections are common, and almost always focus on the same items as New York City's laws - food storage and handling, cleanliness of utensils, handwashing, presence of bugs or pests, etc. - how the inspection results are used varies a lot depending on where you live. For example:

  • In Ohio, city and county health officials run inspections. Letter grades aren't used, rather color-coded licenses are commonly used (Green, Yellow or Red) indicating the safety rating. Most inspections reports are available online
  • Allegheny County in Pennsylvania is considering new rules mirroring New York City's rules
  • San Francisco's Board of Health requires restaurants to post health inspection reports where patrons can see them and must let patrons read them if asked. Inspections are scored, but the scores don't need to be posted

The consequences of violating the health and safety laws are practically the same no matter where you are. In New York City, violators face fines of up to $1,000 per violation. Fines may continue until violations are fixed. Of course, the health agencies have the option of closing down restaurants with repeated or serious health and safety violations.

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Tagged as: Consumer Law, restaurants, consumer law lawyer