The New York City Health Department has released its report on February's KFC rat incident, which shocked even grizzled Gothomites. Pedestrians walking past the glass doors and windows of the Greenwich Village eatery were treated to the sight of at least a dozen large rats frolicking through the restaurant. TV news crews broadcast the rodent revelries live.
The incident was embarrassing enough to the city's health department, but to make matters worse, the restaurant had passed an inspection the day before. Still, health department officials looked on the bright side.
"Our restaurant program performs well overall," said Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, "but in this instance there were failings of personnel, policy and practice. We have identified weaknesses in our system for handling restaurant complaints and combating rodent infestations. Rats are an unfortunate fact of urban life, and although they are not associated with illness in New York City, we must do a better job of ensuring that restaurants and other prevent and control infestations."
Frieden said that restaurant owners and operators bear the responsibility for keeping their establishments clean.
"The KFC/Taco Bell was cited for rodent-related violations as recently as December," he said. "If the operators had responded appropriately, they could have prevented the February incident. We hope that most NYC restaurants will continue to recognize the advantages of holding their kitchens to the highest standards of cleanliness."
The report also discloses that the inspector who gave the restaurant a passing grade on February 22 observed more signs of rodent activity than she reported. Had she cited these violations accurately, the report argues, they would have justified a failing score and possibly a closure of the restaurant.
However, there were other clues that something was not quite right at the fast food restaurant. Calls to the health department's 311 hotline for citizen complaints had mentioned this particular restaurant frequently, the last time -- from an employee -- on February 12.
"He works at the Taco Bells and he has seen rats and rodent droppings in the oil where the food is fried, in the corn and nachos, and on soda machines," the 311 transcript says. "In addition, caller [says] the owner and the managers are not doing anything to fix the problem at all, and if a customer [says] they have seen rodents they are given their food for free. Caller also [says] workers are told not to eat the food. Caller [says] there are 2 restaurants in one and they both have the problem the restaurants are Taco Bell/KFC. Caller [says] the basement is the worst place of all. An employee was bit by a rat in the basement and did nothing about it."
The department says it responded by sending the restaurant a warning letter. In its report on the incident, the department acknowledged that it currently lacks an adequate mechanism to recognize and respond to multiple complaints involving a single food-service establishment. Multiple complaints about this establishment, including an alleged rat bite, were not responded to appropriately, the department admitted.
In response to the review, the health department said it would:
• Develop a system to actively monitor 311 records for repeated complaints about particular restaurants, and establish a threshold for inspection based on the nature, frequency and timing of complaints.
• Amend agency policy to ensure that sanitarians always conduct complete inspections when inspecting in response to complaints about restaurants. This change has already taken effect.
• Reassign the current Director of Customer Service and pursue relieving her of supervisory responsibilities. The sanitarian who conducted the February 22nd inspection has resigned from the agency.
• Revise the inspection system to place greater emphasis on conditions that attract and sustain pests.
• Expand and institutionalize the agency's new rodent-control academy for restaurant inspection staff. In March 2007, 145 environmental health technicians, public health sanitarians and managers from the food safety program were trained to better identify rodent-related conditions.
• Adapt the curriculum of the rodent-control academy to include a course for food service operators. The course will be mandatory for food service operators whose establishments have multiple rodent violations.
• Improve coordination between the agency's food-safety and pest-control programs, and require building owners to repair buildings that house rodent-infested restaurants.
• Pursue an initiative to monitor and combat rodent infestations at the neighborhood level. The New York City Health Department said it inspects approximately 700 restaurants in the city each week. It closes, on average, 20 to 30 for health code violations.