Health inspector quits amid New York investigation of restaurant rat droppings

In the first complaint the New York City health department received about a rodent-infested fast-food restaurant, someone said a rat fell from the ceiling as he or she was eating.

That was on Jan. 22, weeks before the rat infestation at the KFC/Taco Bell in Greenwich Village was captured on video by a TV camera, causing a national embarrassment for the company and prompting increased enforcement of health code rules at city eateries.

The details came from one of two reports issued Monday by the city seeking to explain how the KFC/Taco Bell in Manhattan earned a passing grade, after a February inspection cited systemic failures and a health department inspector's "lack of diligence."

The inspector responsible for the flawed audit resigned Monday.

A report from the health department found shortcomings such as the city's lack of an "adequate mechanism" to respond to repeated restaurant complaints, and focusing too heavily on signs of rodent activity rather than conditions that foster infestations.

The report from the Department of Investigation, however, did not hold back in its criticism.

"After a thorough investigation, DOI found a disturbing lack of diligence on the part of the public health sanitarian who inspected the restaurant as well as a breakdown in the supervision of the inspector," DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn said.

The department said the inspector, Cemone Thomas, "underreported the rodent-related findings and failed to take proper action ... which constituted a 'gross dereliction' of her duties."

On Feb. 22, Thomas documented only 87 rat droppings and did not cite an additional 20, which would have caused the restaurant to fail the inspection and could have forced it to close immediately, the DOI said.

The DOI said evidence in the case suggested that Thomas simply could not be bothered to do a more comprehensive report because she might have been trying to "avoid the additional time it would have taken for further enforcement steps."

Thomas' lawyer did not immediately return telephone messages left at his office Monday.

A Department of Health spokesman, Geoffrey Cowley, said Thomas was a "superb inspector who made a very serious mistake."

Thomas would have been fired had she not resigned before the reports were released publicly, Cowley said. "We really had no alternative but to concur with the DOI," he said.

One of Thomas' supervisors, the food safety program's director of customer service, was accused of fumbling DOH procedures in the reports. The supervisor was being reassigned and will no longer have supervisory responsibilities within the department, but there was no talk of firing her, Cowley said.

Both investigations revealed problems within the inspection system.

There were failings of personnel, policy and practice, health Commissioner Dr. Thomas R. Frieden said.

"We have identified weaknesses in our system for handling restaurant complaints and combating rodent infestations," Frieden said.

One of those was responding to multiple complaints against a restaurant, such as in the case of the KFC/Taco Bell. While the health department first received a complaint against the KFC/Taco Bell on Jan. 22, after someone complained of a rat falling from the ceiling, there were previous warning signs.

From Dec. 23 to Feb. 12, the city received calls on its telephone complaint hot line about the restaurant, including one in which an employee was apparently bitten by a rat.

"A lot of things are going to change," Cowley said. For example, the city intends to develop a system for monitoring hot line complaint records, to establish inspection thresholds based on the nature, frequency and timing of complaints, and to focus inspections more on conditions that attract and sustain pests.

In the wake of the incident, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut said it had asked a leading rat expert to review company standards at its New York outlets. The company apologized for the rats, and said it was working to ensure infestation did not happen again.

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