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Proposed health code changes irk NYC restaurant industry as 'gotcha' tactics

A Manhattan restaurant rated with a Health Department 'A' grade.Mario Tama/Getty Images

The small print in proposed changes to the city's health code could open restaurant owners to new fines, critics said Thursday.

Amendments to the code would include vague requirements that food workers “and other employees" wash hands up to their elbows, and that any restaurant selling fresh-squeezed juice in to-go cups label containers that it "has not been produced in a manner that prevents, reduces or eliminates the presence of pathogens."

And where the code currently requires restaurant workers to note on all refrigerated foods the time at which the item was removed from the fridge, food workers would need to write that information legibly enough for health inspectors to approve.

The New York City Hospitality Alliance — which works with more than 2,000 restaurants, bars and clubs — accused the Health Department of using trying to tweak the code just enough to catch small business owners off guard and fine them with “gotcha” tactics.

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"It smells like a way to raise revenue to me," said Robert Bookman, an attorney for the alliance.

The industry group criticized the Health Department for shutting them out of deliberations on the proposed changes, which were released online about a month ago. Bookman said he kept finding new, worrisome language in the 36-page document even ahead of a public hearing in Queens on Thursday.

"You have to read this thing five times just to notice them," Bookman said. Individual owners might not notice the changes, he added.

Late Thursday, the Health Department told Metro they has worked with the business community on codes and regulations, but that the current slate of changes came from higher up the food chain.

"The proposed amendments and submitted comments are under review, but it should be clear that the proposed rules are necessary updates in light of new recommendations by the FDA, and do not address penalties or enforcement," an agency spokesman wrote in a statement.

In July 2014, de Blasio announced a series of reforms to put "small business first" and to simplify rules and regulations across the board. ​​The Health Department previously touted an anticipated 25 percent reduction in restaurant fines to $35.9 million in fiscal year 2014 compared to a high of $52 million in 2011.

Bookman said the city had reneged on a planned advisory committee, to let industry have a voice in food safety changes. "That's what an agency that wants to work with the industry does," he said.

Boardman said the city had so far reneged on a planned advisory committee, to let industry have a voice in food safety changes. "Thats what an agency does that wants to work with the industry," he said.

The city's Board of Health is scheduled to discuss the changes in March.

 
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