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Making the grade: NY introduces food retailer letter ratings

The new assessment seeks to improve transparency, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets says.

Stew Leonard's store director Joe Vota with A

Stew Leonard's store director Joe Vota with A rating posted in East Meadow on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Photo Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

New York has rolled out new food safety inspection ratings based on letter grades — from A through C — for supermarkets, convenience stores and other food retailers.

“The A, B, and C grades correspond with clear, easy-to-understand inspection results, which will allow consumers to better understand the sanitary conditions of the store,” said Lisa Koumjian, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture and Markets. The grades, introduced last week, also make it easier for inspectors to educate store owners about food safety regulations and areas in need of improvement, she said.

A grade of A means state inspectors found “no critical deficiencies” at the store. B means problems that were spotted were corrected, and C means the problems have not been corrected yet.

With the grades, stores still will be required to display their notices of inspection “in an obvious location” near public entrances. On the back of each notice is a list all possible deficiencies, which will be circled if violations are found.

Several retailers said the letter system will improve transparency.

“We take safety and sanitation very seriously and believe the new system will help consumers more easily identify a particular store’s current status,” King Kullen, a Bethpage-based operator of 32 stores, said in a statement.

A retail trade group, the Food Industry Alliance, supports the letter ratings, said Michael E. Rosen, president.

“I think this change will have an effect on those (stores) who weren’t doing a good job because they’re going to end up with a letter grade that could get consumers’ attention,” he said.

Koumjian said the new grades are an addition to the existing inspection system, not a replacement.

The Department of Agriculture and Markets inspects about 28,000 food retailers annually, some more than once, for deficiencies in food safety.

General deficiencies cover issues that do not directly cause foodborne illness but could affect food operations. Critical deficiencies are those that could lead to foodborne illness, Koumjian said.

During a state inspection in June, a Stew Leonard’s store in East Farmingdale was found to have eight general violations and one critical violation, which was “potentially hazardous foods not stored at safe temperatures,” according to results posted on a state website.

Those issues were addressed quickly, said Barbara Bucknam, Stew Leonard’s chief food safety officer. The company enacted storewide changes, including increasing staff training and in-house inspections, she said.

Stew Leonard’s East Meadow store received an A rating under the new grading system this week.

Of the 35,901 food retailer inspections the state conducted in 2016, 25 percent received unsatisfactory reports, according to Koumjian. Those failing would receive a B or C with the new grading system.

During an inspection in July, a Stop & Shop store in Farmingdale was found to have 11 general violations and one critical violation, which was “employees handling exposed ready-to-eat foods without an acceptable protective barrier.”

No critical deficiencies were noted when the store was re-inspected in October.

“Nothing is more important to Stop & Shop than offering fresh, safe, quality products to our customers,” according to a statement from Stop & Shop, a unit of Netherlands-based Ahold Delhaiz that has about 50 stores on Long Island.

What the new ratings for food retailers mean:

•A – No critical deficiencies were found.

•B – Although critical deficiencies were found, they were corrected at time of inspection.

•C – Critical deficiencies were found but were not or could not be corrected.

Source: New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets

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