A false sense of transparency?

New York City is implementing a new system under which the letter grades given to restaurants by health inspectors must be prominently posted and in which further details are available online. This seems like a good thing: The more consumers know, the better the market works. But to some extent this just replaces ignorance about what goes on in the kitchen with meta-ignorance about what the grades signify. The letter grades are only as good as the inspection regime, and if consumers don’t know what the grades mean, then they may not be helpful. An article in The New York Times looks at some of the complications:

Under the former system, restaurants received points for each violation; a total score over 28 was considered a failing grade. But under the new system, in which 0 to 13 points gets an A, 14 to 27 points merits a B, and 28 or more is a C, officials have softened some rules, like those governing the temperatures of food held for service. And they will not count certain non-food-related violations, like burned-out light bulbs or improperly posted signs, toward the grade, although operators could still have to pay a fine.

So a restaurant that may have received 15 points under the old rules might score, say, 9 under the new ones, said Andrew Rigie, director of operations at the New York State Restaurant Association, a trade group that has been lobbying against the letter grades.

“That’s a big problem,” Mr. Rigie said. A person seeing an old 15-point score on the Web site “would determine that restaurant to be a B-graded restaurant, but there’s a possibility that under the new system it would have an A.”

It’s good that the city is not counting some non-food related violations against the grade, but one has to wonder what else goes into the score. There are 1,200 possible points that restaurants are graded on. Is the difference between a 13-point A and a 14-point B really that meaningful? Or even a 5-point A and a 20-point B? I have no idea, and I suspect that most diners don’t either.

I wrote about this when the new regulations were first announced, noting that the rule:

confuses the measurement with what we’re trying to measure. What we should care about is actual food safety, not the letter grades restaurants are receiving. If the grades aren’t highly correlated with preventing customers from getting sick, then restaurants are just wasting time and money to comply with arcane regulations and to create the illusion of safety.

To this end, making detailed reports available online is a good step. I’m more skeptical that the letter grades will provide useful information. This is the same city, after all, that has cracked down on sous vide cooking and putting egg whites in cocktails (to say nothing of banning trans-fats). Should we trust the experts to identify the most salient concerns with these grades, or should we instead ignore the differences between As and Bs and focus on the worst offenders?

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