NEW YORK – In the first complaint the 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 — a full month before the rat infestation at a KFC/Taco Bell in Manhattan 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 reports cited systemic failures and a health department inspector's "lack of diligence." The inspector resigned the same day the reports were released.
A report from the health department found plenty of shortcomings, such as the city's lack of an "adequate mechanism" to respond to repeated restaurant complaints and for 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. Its investigation "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 didn't cite an additional 20, which would have caused the restaurant to fail the inspection and could have forced it to close immediately, the department said.
The next day, video shot through the restaurant window of rats scampering throughout the eatery before it would have opened for the day surfaced. The city dispatched a second inspector, who ordered the place closed.
The department said evidence in the case suggested that Thomas simply couldn't 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 didn't return telephone messages left by The Associated Press at his office Monday.
A Department of Health spokesman, Geoffrey Cowley, said Thomas was a "superb inspector who made a very serious mistake."
Thomas resigned before the contents of the rat reports were released publicly. She would have been fired if she hadn't quit, Cowley said.
In response to the KFC/Taco Bell fiasco, Cowley said "a lot of things are going to change."
The parent company of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, Louisville-based Yum Brands Inc. (YUM), 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 another infestation didn't happen again.