Assembly bill seeks to unleash food establishment violations online

Photo: Sebastien Malo

Photo: Sebastien Malo

Not many New Yorkers would walk into a restaurant with a bright orange “C” grade taped to the inside of its window.

Before making that coveted New York City dinner reservation, diners can look up their restaurant of choice online and see how many mouse droppings — or other unsanitary violations — were found there.

Customers do not have the same opportunity when it comes to other food establishments they frequent. Bakeries, supermarkets, bodegas all get rated for health risks by the State of New York, yet it’s impossible to look up any violations online.

If it’s up to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, that will change.

The speaker has introduced a bill that would make it mandatory for the Department of Agriculture and Markets to publish inspection data online for the most recent three years. The department inspections cover all retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers handling food, including grocery stores, warehouses, manufacturers and processors.

The introduction of the bill was first reported by Jewish Week, which had used state records to expose a vermin infestation at Zomick’s Bakery, a kosher food manufacturer on Long Island.

The Department of Agriculture and Markets employs 115 food inspectors to inspect roughly 28,000 establishments statewide, at least once annually.

Currently, the data is available only via a freedom of information request. And even then, information-seekers have to plow through thousands of spreadsheet rows.

“It is of paramount importance to me that consumers have access to vital information about the safety of their food,” Silver said in a statement.

“People rely on safe processing practices and accurate labeling to protect their families from contaminated food, to avoid life-threatening food allergens and to make sure they are adhering to whatever dietary restrictions they follow,” Silver said. “This will be an invaluable resource for all consumers, as it will allow them to make better informed choices about what foods to buy.”

Joe Morrissey, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Markets, did not return multiple requests for comment.

New Yorkers currently depend on media outlets to make the information available. The New York World recently published a searchable online database that shows the most serious violations for major supermarket chains in New York City. Our partner DNAinfo, followed by the Daily News, WNYC, Gizmodo and other media organizations, have also embedded the interactive on their websites, and Digg featured it on its homepage. Good Day New York, NBC4 News, WPIX News and other outlets also picked up our findings.

Patch, which supplied the data to the New York World, previously published a searchable map, which showed every establishment in New York City covered by the law.

If Silver’s bill passes, the state will now get in the business of posting health records online.

“Providing inspection information in the public format is always a step in the right direction,” said Sarah Klein, staff attorney with the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Simply providing online information, however, is not enough, according to Klein.

“People aren’t going to go and do a research project before they go out to dinner. What they need is the information right in the window,” Klein said.

Data Tools


Our work has appeared in…

About TNYW

The New York World focuses on producing data-driven investigative projects.