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Posted: June 16, 2009 8:51 p.m.

Restaurant owners speak out against low health grades

Owners say low grades do not represent actual business

Several new and established restaurants in Newton County have been receiving failing restaurant inspection grades, and they say they’re being unfairly treated by the local health inspectors.

Community staples like Jim Stalvey’s and Smiley’s restaurants and popular newcomers like Bangkok Grill and Debbie’s Deli and Café have all received failing inspection scores, as low as 44, in the past couple of months. The owners say they’ve had historically good scores and they believe the health inspector for Newton County is unfairly stringent and inconsistent. They say the low scores are a serious issue because their business has substantially declined and some are in danger of shutting down.

Restaurant scores decreased across the state after the Georgia Department of Health adopted more stringent regulations in Dec. 2007, but the scores partially decreased simply because the regulations were new and restaurants had to adjust. Most counties saw significant improvement in scores over the course of 2008 as restaurants worked with health inspectors to learn the new health code. District Three Commissioner Nancy Schulz, who also runs Putters Restaurant at the Oaks Golf Course, said 2008 was largely used as a test year to help restaurants get up to speed.

She said the regulations changed focus from looking more at the facilities before 2008 to looking more at food safety now. She said the guidelines are much more stringent in terms of food handling, food safety, proper temperatures and proper sanitation as opposed to what the facility looks like, although that still plays a part. According to the Georgia Department of Human Resources, the changes were modeled after the Food and Drug Administration’s 2005 Food Code.

However, despite the decline across most of the state, Newton County has continued to see a larger number of "C’s" and "U’s," a failing score, than surrounding counties and other counties across the state.

Newton and Rockdale counties both fall within the East Metro Health District, the governing public health body for the region consisting of Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties. The online records are not comprehensive and entirely consistent, but since the beginning of 2008 Rockdale has recorded 23 "U’s" out of around 470 inspections at more than 200 restaurants, and has no "U’s" currently as of June 12. Newton has recorded 44 "U’s" out of around 220 inspections at more than 110 total restaurants, and has six "U’s" currently, as of June 12.

About 20 percent of Newton’s inspections have been "U’s," while around 5 percent of Rockdale’s inspections have resulted in "U’s". Debbie Cussen, owner of Debbie’s Deli and Café, said the question is why are all of these Newton County restaurants receiving bad scores. She said many of them received passing grades under the old regulations and there have been no corresponding boughts of illness in the community.

After hearing that she was not the only restaurant owner plagued by bad scores, she formed the Restaurant Owners Alliance, a group of local owners who are joining together to address the issues of restaurant inspections in Newton County. The group had their first meeting Monday, and Chairman Kathy Morgan, Mayor Kim Carter, Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby and Commissioners Schulz and Mort Ewing all attended the meeting in addition to more than a dozen restaurant owners. The owners discussed their inspection stories and Cussen said many of them noticed inconsistencies in how Newton County inspector Jason Reagan’s inspections, because one owner would get market off for a specific infraction and another owner would not.

Cussen said she also saw inconsistencies among the inspectors themselves, because during an initial inspection Reagan docked Cussen for having a trash can in the wrong place. During a reinspection Cussen asked Reagan’s boss Corey Millwood about the trash can and he said he didn’t see a problem and admitted that the particular part of the code in question was a gray area.

Smiley’s owner Gwen Spears said some of the infractions her restaurant was docked for have been fair and some have not. She said she was marked off for having a rusty 15-pound can opener in her kitchen even though she said the can opener couldn’t even be used because she didn’t have any equipment to mount the opener to the counter-top.

Spears also said Reagan has a lot of power in his ability to describe infractions. She said he marked her off for wearing a ring, and marked it under personal hygiene, which she said insinuates that her hands or body aren’t clean.

A spokesman for the East Metro Health Department said the department is working with the Newton County Commission and would coordinate any responses with that office. Neither Morgan nor any other public health officials at the state or local level could be reached for comment Thursday or Friday.

The owners and local politicians are concerned, because they say the inspectors have too much power without any oversight. Cussen said she has lost 70 percent of her business since her low scores came out and Spears said her business is down $6,000 per week.

Rep. Doug Holt said the problem has been going on for months and earlier this year he asked the Department of Health to re-inspect a local business to which had been given a failing score. Holt received back a letter on Feb. 2 saying the reinspection had confirmed the first findings, that officials believed the problems in Newton County were still related to the learning curve of the new regulations, and that the officials would continue to monitor the situation.

Holt said he was concerned with the response and has been concerned with the health department in the past, because the agency has the power to regulate and penalize restaurants, yet is not accountable to any other agency. He said the lack of oversight concerns him, and he has been considering introducing legislation to better regulate this area.

Currently, Cussen said the owners have no appeal process to contest a bad score and she said the loss in business and $200 to $300 cost of a reinspection are steep costs. Cussen said she wanted to clarify that the owners aren’t attacking Reagan, but they disagree with how he is interpreting some of the regulations. She said there are gray areas that need to be addressed. She said the relationship between health inspectors and restaurant owners is supposed to be a partnership, not an adversarial relationship.

Mickey Dee’s owner David Bass who has received A’s on his past two inspections said Reagan is a very thorough inspector, and he doesn’t believe that Reagan oversteps his bounds.

"I don’t think he goes out of his way or is obnoxiously over it," Bass said. "He’s got a job to do. Obviously some people take it seriously, others take it more lax. He’s one of the more serious ones. Some inspectors may overlook two degrees (off in proper temperature), but he’s going to nail you to the wall for two degrees."

Bass said the majority of rules are easy to follow, but there are a couple that are hard to keep up with all the time, especially when traffic increases.

Cussen said that her workers are technically required to change gloves and wash their hands in between making each sandwich, even if the sandwiches use the same lunch meat. She said the time needed to wash hands slows down business too much during rush hours and the amount of gloves is cost prohibitive.

"When they came up with the regulations they probably sounded fabulous," Cussen said. "But we can’t possibly unglove, wash our hands and reglove in between each sandwich. We just try to do as perfect of a job as we can."

Cussen said that the health inspectors have a lot of leeway in how strict they can be, and she said Reagan is allowed to interpret the rules as strictly as he wants. However, she and other owners want to make sure the process is fair and consistent.

All the owners said the most important thing is to protect public safety. However, Schulz said the regulations shouldn’t create a barrier so that either the public loses confidence in restaurants or they lose confidence in the inspection scores themselves.

Cussen said the alliance is having its second meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday at Debbie’s Deli and is anyone is welcome to attend. She said the group will look for a way to explain to the public how the scores are calculated and that a low score doesn’t necessarily mean a dirty restaurant.

Morgan has scheduled a meeting with representatives from the Restaurant Owners Alliance and Dr. Lloyd Hofer, director of Newton County Board of Health, at 9 a.m. on Thursday at the Newton County Administrative Building in order to try to find a solution. The meeting will be open to the public.

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