From the moment the footage from the infested Taco Bell aired, the rat story had legs. Tourists came to gawk and have their pictures taken at the Greenwich Village restaurant where the large rodents had been seen scurrying across the floor and climbing the tables. Passersby scrawled rodent-themed graffiti on Health Department closure notice ("Gimme a Side of Mice and Beans!"; Try Our New Burrato!"). The rats were "the best local news story you could possibly have," gushed an editor for WNBC. David Letterman made jokes about them on late night television.
Officials at City Hall, however, did not seem so amused. Having rats take over a restaurant was a major embarrassment, especially given that the Taco Bell/KFC in question had passed a health inspection less than 24 hours earlier. The department closed over a dozen other restaurants for health violations since February 23, and city officials have talked up the toughness of its inspection process.
Once again, City Hall seems to be at war with the fast food industry.
Such conflicts have been commonplace during the Bloomberg administration, which takes pride in its aggressive actions on public health. After pushing through a controversial smoking ban, the health department turned to obesity, and the restaurants that it says enable it. It passed rules banning transfats and requiring some restaurants to list calories on their menus.
The issue extends beyond the health department: the head of the City Council's health committee floated a plan to restrict fast food restaurants from opening in low-income neighborhoods, and two Dunkin Donuts franchise owners are suing the city's building department for illegally blocking fast food restaurants from opening in busy places. Still, the rules passed by the Board of Health have attracted the most attention. Restaurateurs and civil libertarians argue that officials shouldn't restrict people from eating unhealthy food, and say that that such attempts to improve public health interfere with the right of restaurants to do business.
Nobody, of course, argues that the city shouldn't clamp down on rat-infested restaurants (well, almost nobody). But some see the same overzealousness in the aftermath of the Taco Bell rat incident that they have in the health department's previous campaigns. Officials shouldn't be so quick to scapegoat restaurants, they say, when the problems of public cleanliness and health extend far beyond their industry.
Rats are nothing new to New York City, as anyone who ever waits for a subway or walks at night knows. Like many New Yorkers, they are the descendants of ancestors who came from Europe on a boat, scraping out an uncertain living in the big city. "I think of rats as our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same," wrote Robert Sullivan in Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. "If the presence of a grizzly bear is the indicator of the wilderness of an area, the range of unsettled habitat, then a rat is an indicator of the presence of man."
Still, the coexistence is not mutually beneficial. Rats carry diseases, the most famous being the Black Plague. They bite babies. They chew through electrical cables, causing fires. And when they show up in restaurants, it's bound to cause a stir. The stock price of Yum!, the company that owns Taco Bell, has dropped off significantly since it infamous infestation. The record of the city's health inspectors has been suddenly and dramatically called into question. The New York Post pointed out the department's past of corruption, noting a scandal in 1989 resulted in 46 health inspectorsâ€“ 65 percent of the total force â€“ being found guilty of extortion. The Post doesn't accuse the department of corruption this time, however, but rather of neglect, saying that Commissioner Thomas Frieden has been too focused on changing New Yorkers' behavior, instead of the unglamorous aspects of his job like restaurant inspections.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended his record, presenting statistics that showed that 469 eateries had been closed at least temporarily since July 1, 2006, up from 255 for the corresponding period during the previous year. He also said that the department was carrying out exterminations on the block where the video had been shot, and reviewing the restaurants that had been given clean bills of health by the same inspector.
In the days that followed, other restaurants began to be closed down, including several Yum! franchises owned by the same proprietor, and other eateries nearby -- an Au Bon Pain, Risotteria, John's Pizzeria. City Hall has said that there was no crackdown, but local restaurateurs and representatives of the industry charged the department with being overly aggressive in an attempt to offset bad publicity by appearing vigilant. In the weeks since the Taco Bell incident, health inspectors have reportedly closed down restaurants at three times their normal rate.
"They came on a witch hunt," said Michael Frank, a long-time manager at John's Pizzeria on Bleecker Street, while sitting in the empty restaurant last Tuesday, several days after it was shut down. Health inspectors showed up on a busy night, he said, and closed the restaurant for a series of minor violations -- the lack of proper lids on bathroom trashcans, the presence of several holes in the foundation, and the discovery of some mouse droppings in the basement. The staff was forced to kick everyone out during the dinner rush.
In the past, said Frank, the department has given restaurants the opportunity to fix such problems instead of shutting them down immediately. Chuck Hunt, the head of the local chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association agreed, saying that most offenses are generally corrected during the inspection itself, if not soon thereafter.
John's addressed the problems, and was allowed to reopen last Wednesday, almost a week after it was shuttered.
City officials argue that the inspection process works well. The Taco Bell incident, they say, was an aberration. But the controversy has sparked discussion about several long-term solutions to make restaurants cleaner.
The New York Sun's prescription is the most radical. It thinks that City Hall should get rid of health inspectors altogether, cut taxes with the money its saves, and let customers "navigate the tradeoff between price and speed and cleanliness in a restaurant on their own, without the assistance of big government."
Hunt of the restaurant association says inspections are necessary, but would like to see them used as opportunities to educate restaurants on avoiding unhealthy conditions. He also argues that City Hall should rethink its ban on garbage disposals at commercial establishments. Critics say it leads to piles of food waste sitting in restaurants until they can be taken away by garbage trucks, and Councilmember Joel Rivera has introduced a bill that would end the ban. He says that he hopes the recent controversy will bring urgency to the measure, which has been languishing.
"It will help to decrease the cost of carting garbage out of New York, which we all know is expensive," he said, describing the impact his bill would have if passed. "At the same time we get to mitigate the issue of rats."
The city's effort to control the rat population is not simply a problem in restaurants, of course. Almost 30 percent of rental housing units are infested, and the city's subway tunnels, old buildings, and abundance of waste makes an ideal habitat for rats. City officials describe a wide ranging campaign to combat the root causes of infestation. There is no perfect way to tell whether the campaign is working, because how do you measure the rat problem. By complaints about rats? They've almost doubled since Bloomberg took office. By the number of times rats bite people? That number is at its lowest level in decades.
Even clean restaurants can be unhealthy, however. Until several weeks ago, most of the controversy over the health department has centered on its attempts to legislate healthy behavior.
Two rules the Board of Health passed in December to try to make restaurants healthier have set off the latest round in this debate, which first flared up when Bloomberg and Frieden decided to implement a full ban on smoking. In each case, the basic parameters of the debate are the same: On one side are those who laud Freiden as a visionary pushing innovative policies that will improve public health. On the other side are those who argue that he is interfering in areas where people should be allowed to make their own choices, no matter how unhealthy they may be, and hurting business owners in the process.
Under one of these rules, New York would become the first city to ban the use of trans fats, artificial fats that medical experts say increase the chances of heart disease and other serious health conditions.
Trans fats are used to make crunchier foods with longer shelf lives. They are widely seen as unhealthy, and Freiden says that they can be replaced without affecting the taste or cost of food.
Opponents of the ban don’t claim that trans fats are healthy; they argue that if people want to avoid them they can simply not eat foods that use them. A ban, they say, will harm businesses that will have to change suppliers and recipes. Switching to alternative fats could cost money and change the taste of their products.
But momentum has shifted against trans fats. Fast food chains like McDonalds and Starbucks are phasing them out, and cruise lines, hotel chains, and even shortening brand Crisco say they are also eliminating trans fats. Last week, the health commissioner of the EU said it should follow New York's lead on a trans fat ban.
The City Council initially sparred with Frieden, saying it wanted to introduce its own plan in the form of a law. But Councilmember Peter Vallone recently introduced a bill to simply pass a law codifying the board's plan, making it harder for the ban to be overturned when Bloomberg leaves office in 2009.
The Board of Health also passed a rule that would require restaurants to list calorie totals next to each menu item in the same size print. Only restaurants with standardized menus that already provide nutritional information will be affected when the requirements go into effect in July 1. Such establishments account for about 10 percent of the city's restaurants, and are mostly chain fast food places.
Restaurants that provide nutritional information already said they were being punished unfairly, and predicted the rule would be an incentive to stop providing any information. They also complained that even with a standardized menu there were too many variations on each dish to list a single calorie count honestly. The board of health argued that it allowed the restaurants to list a calorie range, but critics were not mollified.
In late February several chains including Wendy's and White Castle stopped providing calorie counts so that they would not have to comply with the new rule.
Spurred by the restaurant industry, Councilmember Rivera introduced a bill that would reverse the rule. Instead of requiring restaurants to list the calorie counts on menu boards, Rivera's bill would allow them to use brochures or on posters. Critics say this misses the point, since people will not see the counts when they purchase the food.
As with trans fats, some council members also said the board should submit its ideas as legislation
"This is a major policy change," said Councilmember David Yassky, head of the council's small business committee. "To do it administratively without the democratic process and a council vote is reason alone to oppose it."
Council bills generally do not pass without the blessing of the speaker, however, and Quinn has indicated she will not support the council's pushing back against the board on the calorie bill.
"I don't have any particular interest in changing what the Board of Health has done," she said.
Despite the controversy, there is no guarantee that the recent steps by the city will actually improve New Yorkers' health. Many remain skeptical that these seemingly intractable problems are going to disappear because of anything the Bloomberg administration does.
If listing the amount of calories in foods led people to make better choices, then Americans would have gotten healthier in the years since rules were put in place requiring packaged food to list nutritional information, said Hunt. Instead, Americans have gotten fatter. Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, sees the vilification of trans fats as only the most recent in the ever changing landscape of nutrients falling in and out of favor. Trans fats were actually introduced as a health alternative to saturated fats; today, the labels of foods containing saturated fats proudly proclaim the contents to be free of trans fats.
And as for rodents, well, few really see a future without them. Rats can be chased out of buildings or even blocks, but no one believes the city will ever be rid of them. The windows of the now-infamous Taco Bell are boarded up now; there's nothing more to see. But one vandal has offered some advice for latecomers hoping to catch a glimpse:
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