By Alice Park
June 29, 2015

It’s been five years since New York City instituted a strict grading policy assessing restaurants for cleanliness, food safety and handling—an attempt to address its somewhat unsavory reputation as a mecca for unsanitary eating establishments.

Now, in the latest report, city health officials have some good news: 95% of restaurants now earn A grades, and violations that can contribute to foodborne illnesses have dropped by 11%, giving New York its cleanest report card since the program began.

The requirements and methods of the health inspections are not without critics; even high-end establishments with Michelin-star honored chefs like Per Se were notoriously cited for not maintaining hot foods at high enough temperatures or cold foods at cold enough temperatures, despite commonly used practices of “resting” dishes after they come out of the oven or refrigerator to balance flavor and temperature. But the system works, say health officials. The report says that 37% more new restaurants in the city earn A grades in their first year compared to five years ago, and 18% fewer eateries have been cited for evidence of mice.

The program allows eating establishments one do-over; if they don’t meet criteria for earning an A grade, they have up to 30 days to fix their violations and receive a second inspection before getting the final grade that gets posted on their window. That posting, says Dan Kass, deputy commissioner for environmental health at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is key to the program’s success. “You need transparency in governmental inspection programs,” he says. “It’s the best way to inform the public and encourage them to vote with their feet and the best way to motivate restaurants—especially those that lag behind others in hygiene and food safety practices—to feel motivated to comply [with health regulations.]”

When the letter grading and public posting of the grades began five years ago, says Kass, officials expected about a 5% improvement in grades every year. “We have seen much more rapid change than that,” he says, “and it truly influences the practice of food safety in restaurants.”

The department now plans to launch a food safety workshop for restaurant workers—not just owners—to help them better understand the value and importance of proper handling and storing of food. But the public and prominent posting of letter grades will remain, so diners will still have a quick and easy way of knowing where the restaurant stands with respect to food safety and sanitation. “Inspections and education alone are insufficient to drive restaurants to improve,” Kass says. “Threats of fines may help, but those too are insufficient to move some restaurants to really change practices and put the public’s health first. There is no question that public transparency and making the information available to public at the point of sale is probably the most important driver—at least for the improvements we see.”

In fact, the system is gaining in popularity; Yelp reviews now include the grades or number scores for restaurants in cities that provide them.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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