Bloomberg: It’s Time To Grade Street Food Vendors
Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week said the city’s system of grading restaurants for cleanliness is such a success that it should be expanded to include street food vendors.
“I love to eat from the food vendors,” Bloomberg said during an official visit to the Sparks Deli in Long Island City. “Personally, I would love to see a sign up there telling whether or not the guy washed his hands before he reaches in and pulls out the hot dog.”
Not so fast, said city Department of Health (DOH) Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, who cautioned that DOH is not ready to take on the task of grading food vendors, just yet.
“We can take a look at it, but we’re not committing to that right now,” Farley said. “Letter grading of mobile food vendors would require a number of considerations that are quite different from restaurants,” Farley stated. “Carts are mobile, making regular re-inspections, such as those done at restaurants, much more difficult.”
The year-old restaurant grading system allows establishments that don’t rate an “A” in their initial tests to be re-inspected within one month. Restaurant owners may also appeal their final score, a DOH spokesperson said. In that case, the restaurant receives a “Grade Pending” sign that must be posted in clear view until an administrative judge reviews the case – usually within four weeks, the spokesperson said.
Enforcement of the grading system has led to an increase in summonses, with $32 million in fines issued in 2010 and about $42 million in fines anticipated for 2011.
Bloomberg said the threat of having to hang a poor grade in a window has motivated restaurant owners to keep their establishments clean.
A DOH spokesperson said the agency is planning to distribute hand-held computers to field inspectors within the next two years that would allow the agency to establish a new data system for inspectors to use in evaluating food cart vendors.
Licensed vendors in Astoria and Long Island City gave mixed reviews to the proposed food cart grading system.
“If you are clean and you offer fresh, properly prepared and stored food to customers, there is nothing to worry about,” vendor Muhammad Masir said. “Only people who are not clean should fear the rating system.”
DOH officials recently re-issued a warning to city residents to be alert when purchasing food from unlicensed street vendors.
Health officials said licensed vendors are a “best bet” when purchasing food at street fairs, festivals and on busy shopping corridors. Unlicensed vendors often do not have proper cooling equipment to store and serve prepared food, officials said.
“People are taking a health risk when they purchase food from vendors who are not licensed and regulated by the city,” the officials said.
Officials at the 114th Precinct said police officers are also constantly on the lookout for shady vendors or those who are preparing and serving food in a questionable manner.
DOH officials said many illegal vendors remain on the street after they receive summonses from police, DOH or Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) inspectors because they feel the cost of summonses is “cheaper than renting a store, paying insurance and everything else involved in running a legitimate business”.
Meanwhile, the vendors take business away from restaurants by snagging customers with rock bottom prices, the owners said.
A DCA spokesperson said shoppers have the right to ask a street food vendor for his/her license prior to making a purchase. If the vendor is unlicensed, shoppers are urged to call 311 for police response.