City Council members and restaurant owners grilled the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Wednesday over what it called "inconsistencies" in the city's restaurant health inspection and letter grading system.
The council's hearing came a day after Mayor Michael Bloomberg touted the program as a "success," saying more restaurants were earning "A's" by becoming safer and cleaner, and that eateries are seeing a 10% boost in profits since letter grades started adorning windows in July 2010.
But an analysis by the City Council and a survey of restaurateurs released prior to the hearing showed that the health department is writing up more violations and collecting more in fines than it was before the grades were implemented.
"We can't have more restaurants being 'A' - the top grade, but more fines coming in," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who collected surveys and complaints from more than 1,000 restaurants. "It just strains common sense."
Other council members also had harsh words for the health department.
"It seems to me that the focus is at least equally on raising revenue as it is on making restaurants safer," said Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), who co-sponsored Wednesday's hearing.
Council member Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Queens) said the department's inspection and appeals process led restaurants to believe it is "more interested in fines than in safety," he said.
"You called [the inspection process] an education several times," Van Bramer said to health commissioner Thomas Farley. "Some might call it extortion."
Farley dismissed their accusations that his department pays a heavy emphasis on raising revenue for the city saying, "The focus is on making restaurants better."
"I understand some restaurants don't like to post 'B's' and 'C's' in their windows. I understand they don't like to be fined when the department finds a violation," Farley said, adding, "We will not lower our standards."
Council members and restaurant owners said inspectors were "rude" and insensitive while doing safety checks.
Scott Rosenberg, a co-owner of Sushi Yasuda - which has an "A" grade - told of an occasion last year where an inspector took a piece of tuna worth more than $10,000 he deemed unsafe and "it was thrown in a garbage can and an inspector poured bleach all over it."
Restaurant advocated pleaded with city council and the health department to make changes to the inspection process.
"Food safety through education and cooperation should be the priority," said Robert Bookman of the New York Nightlife Association, "not fines and scarlet letters."
Follow reporter Marc Beja on Twitter: @marc_beja