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Posted: June 24, 2009 12:30 a.m.

Restaurant owners discuss string of low grades

After months of complaints about failing restaurant inspection scores, several Newton County restaurant owners finally sat down with local health officials on June 18 to air their grievances and get some answers.

Owners have been complaining that Newton County’s restaurants have far more failing grades, "U’s," than neighboring counties and counties across the state. A growing group of owners are joining the Restaurant Owners Alliance, started by Debbie Cussen, owner of Debbie’s Deli and Café, in order to band together to express their frustration about the low restaurant scores in Newton County. Chairman Kathy Morgan attended the alliance’s first meeting on June 8 and facilitated Thursday’s meeting in an effort to resolve the problem.

The meeting was attended by a group of owners, officials from Newton County Environmental Health and the East Metro Health District, Chairman Kathy Morgan and Rep. Doug Holt (R-Social Circle).

Owners said they believe that the new food code regulations, which were adopted statewide in December 2007, have too many gray areas, penalize owners too heavily for small infractions and are being enforced unfairly by Jason Reagan, environmental health inspector for Newton County.

Dr. Lloyd Hofer, director of the Newton County Board of Health, said the new regulations are based on the Federal Drug Administration’s standards and were formed at the state level, which means they can’t be changed locally. He said the inspections are pretty well standardized across the EMHD, which contains Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties, and that the regulations shouldn’t be a mystery.

"(Inspections) should be a pretty seamless process whether an inspector likes you or doesn’t like you," Hofer said.

However, owners say the problem is they can’t understand all of the regulations, especially in the cases where the same situation is marked as a violation one inspection, but not the next, and in cases where Reagan can’t explain why the regulations mark off for the things they do.

Luigi’s Pizza owner Caper Hiott, an alliance spokesperson, said Reagan couldn’t tell him why pizza dough could be touched with bare hands prior to cooking, but the toppings can’t be touched.

EMHD Director Joseph Sternberg acknowledged that some of the regulations aren’t clearly explained, but he reiterated that the changes must be done at the state level. He said a regulations interpretation manual is being created at the state and will be released in about a month. He said people can comment on the regulations at the state’s Web site, which will help in the process to clear up any confusing sections.

Several owners have complained that they are having significant numbers of points taken off their scores for small

items that don’t affect the cleanliness of their buildings or the safety of the food they prepare.

EMHD Spokesman Vernon Goins said that the restaurant inspection forms are weighted to take off points based on the seriousness of the violation. He said all violations, even those such as having no paper towels readily available or having a trash can in the wrong place, can possibly lead to disease transmission, which is why they must be marked off. However, they will only cost owners a couple of points, because they are not as serious as mishandling or improperly cooking food.

Hiott asked if those violations could not be marked off during an initial restaurant inspection, but Sternberg said if a violation is noted, it must be counted off, even if it is fixed immediately on sight.

Goins said in a later interview that the EMHD is willing to educate the owners and help them understand, but the owners have to seek out that education; it can’t come during the inspection process. He said the EMHD has been preparing owners for these new regulations through training classes since 2006. New restaurants that enter the community have to be able to catch up to speed quickly by studying the regulations, asking the health department questions and attending training classes.

He said the reason Newton County is experiencing so many "U’s" now is because the health regulations weren’t being properly enforced until Reagan was hired. He said Gwinnett and Rockdale went through similar phases a year ago, and some restaurants learned about the changes the hard way. He said most of the restaurants in those counties now get high grades. He said he expects the same change to happen in Newton County.

Reinspections, which are required for businesses that receive failing grades, are generally much higher that the original inspection, often raising from a "U" to an "A." However, some owners with passing grades said they are never sure if they’ll be able to pass the next inspection.

The Georgia Restaurant Association was consulted on the writing of the new regulations and President Ron Wolf said there are some parts of the code that can be difficult to interpret. However, he said that because the reinspection scores were generally high in Newton County, he guessed that many of the problems are being solved and are not causing confusion two times in a row once explained.

Hiott said he’s been inspected seven times in the eight months he’s been open and he’s still trying to learn fully the regulations.

Although the regulations are strict, Hofer said that as a result Georgia residents have never been safer when eating out.

The owners said the scores concern them because of the negative impact they have on their business. Cussen said she’s lost 70 percent of her business and Smiley’s owner Gwen Spears said she’s losing $6,000 a week since her failing scores appeared in the paper.

Rep. Doug Holt agreed that an individual health inspector wields a lot of power.

"The power inspectors have is profound and they must use it carefully and judiciously," Holt said. "The idea that it could be used irresponsibly is simply unacceptable. It troubles me that’s it taken so long to get to this level of response."

Cussen asked Hofer to write a statement to the public to inform them about what the inspection form categories mean and how the scores are calculated, because she feels the scores themselves don’t give enough information. Hofer agreed to consider Cussen’s proposal and Goins said after the meeting that he expected the health department to release some statement in the future.

Owners say Reagan’s attitude makes it appear that he enjoys finding violations and taking off points. The owners say they deserve more respect than to be treated like they are ignorant of how to run a clean, safe restaurant. Wolf said that strained relationships between restaurateurs and inspectors are not unusual, because of the nature of the work involved. Owners are busy and don’t have time for inspections; inspectors have a responsibility to thoroughly comb over a restaurant.

One important piece of information that was relayed to the owners was the proper chain of command for any disputes. Many owners didn’t even know there was an appeal process, but officials said that any dispute with an inspector should be relayed to the supervisor and would be decided on by him. Cussen asked if, in the event of a dispute, the scores could be put on hold for 48 hours and not released to the public until the dispute was resolved. Officials said they would look into the request.

All parties agree that the relationship between restaurants and inspectors should be a partnership, and that only the restaurants that seriously risk public health should be shut down. Hofer promised to have instructional courses and training classes available next week and beyond. Reagan and his supervisor Corey Millwood will teach the classes.

Another roundtable meeting has been planned for the middle of July to continue to monitor the situation.

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