While some local restaurants have been easily able to meet the new food service regulations, approved by the state at the end of 2007, other restaurants have experienced a marked drop in their health inspection scores
The new regulations include stricter rules for the monitoring of food temperatures, employee hand washing and bare skin contact with food. The regulations also call for each restaurant to have at least one Certified Food Safety Manager on staff who is knowledgeable on all food service health codes.
Restaurants now receive a letter grade in addition to their numerical scores. The grade of 'A' is received for a score of 90-100, 'B' for a score of 80-89, 'C' for a score of 70-79 and 'U' for anything equal to or lower than 69. A restaurant that receives two consecutive 'U' scores is automatically closed by the Georgia Division of Public Health.
"This is having a dramatic effect on food service businesses throughout the state that are realizing 'we'd better watch this health code business,'" said Vernon Goins, public information officer for the Georgia Division of Public Health's East Metro Health District, which includes Newton County.
Since the new regulations went into effect at the beginning of December, at least four Newton County restaurants have received grades of 'U' for unacceptable health inspections. According to Goins, restaurants that receive a 'U' are re-inspected within two weeks of the original inspection date.
"These really are the first 'U's that have come to my desk," Goins said adding, "It isn't just Newton. We're getting lower scores statewide."
A Waffle House at 10106 Alcovy Road received a score of 45 when it was inspected on Jan. 28.
The Waffle House received deductions for, among others, not having a CFSM on staff, improper washing of hands, bare hand contact with food, not keeping raw meats separated and protected, chemical products stored with food products and cockroaches.
Since Jan. 28, the Waffle House has been re-inspected and given a new score of 72. There are four Waffle House restaurants in Newton County, and many more in the surrounding area. The Alcovy Road Waffle House was the only franchise in Newton County to receive a grade of 'U'.
Pat Warner, spokesperson for Waffle House Inc. said the company was taking a "very proactive" stance in regards to the Alcovy Road restaurant's low score. "This restaurant had a couple of missteps which the manager has corrected," Warner said.
Warner said he did not think the two low scores of a 45 and a 72 demonstrated any kind of a pattern for the restaurant.
"Since that inspection and on-going we have been working with the restaurant to make sure they are in compliance," Warner said. "I don't think it's a trend in this restaurant. I think this restaurant had some issues and the management showed up and is taking care of it as we speak."
Warner said a third inspection was scheduled to take place soon for the restaurant. He also said the issues of hand washing and cockroaches had all been addressed.
"The manager took the corrective steps on all of those," Warner said.
According to Goins, the East Metro Health District spent 18 months training public health personnel and working with restaurant owners and operators to prepare them for the new regulations. While other health districts in the state gave restaurants a six month grace period to get used to the new regulations, Goins said East Metro put the regulations into full effect starting Dec. 1.
"We may be the most aggressive health district in the state," Goins said. "We're starting to see some of the results of the stricter enforcement."
The new regulations are based in large part on the Food and Drug Administration's 2005 Food Code. Goins said Georgia was the 46th state to adopt the regulations.
"The stricter rules are not just for the restaurants, they also are applied to the inspectors," Goins said. "If they see something [in the restaurant] they have to mark it. If the operator can take care of it, it's still marked."
Goins said Georgia decided to adopt the stricter regulations to address the high instance of food borne poisoning in the nation each year. According to Goins, there are 76 million cases of food poisoning nationally each year.
Other local scores
Mamie's Inc., 7121 U.S. Highway 278, received a score of 63 when it was inspected on Jan. 29. The restaurant, famous locally for its breakfast sandwiches, was marked down for improper temperatures of potentially hazardous foods, for not properly labeling all bulk storage and for bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.
Mamie's owner Mike Howard said he didn't think it was fair the health department went directly to the new regulations without any grace period. Howard said the restaurant, which has been open for 28 years, normally receives a health inspection score in the high 90s to 100.
"It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen," Howard said. "I've never, not once, had anyone with a food-borne disease."
Mamie's was re-inspected earlier this month and received a new score of 85 according to Goins.
Howard said the fast pace of food preparation and food delivery at Mamie's has made it cumbersome to follow all of the new temperature guidelines the health department now requires.
"As soon as it comes off the grill, it's on the biscuit," Howard said. "Everything we do, we try to do in total accordance of safe handling."
Howard said he planned to re-modify the restaurant's kitchen as a result of the new regulations and would be adding new shelving units, bread warmers and sandwich units.
While some restaurants have had trouble adjusting to the new scores, the vast majority have not. Since Dec 1, at least 77 Newton County food service establishments have scored grades in the 'A' range in their health inspections. Seven restaurants have scored 'B's and four have received 'C's. Restaurants are inspected at least twice a year by the health department.
The Chick-fil-A on U.S. Highway 278 was one of the restaurants to score highly under the new regulations, receiving a score of 98 at the beginning of December.
General manager Patricia Livingston said it wasn't difficult for the restaurant to adjust to the new regulations as Chick-fil-A has a corporate policy that stresses food safety.
"We always have consistent health scores," Livingston said. "Ninety nine percent of the stuff we already had in place."
Tuesday morning in the kitchen of the Chick-fil-A restaurant, a handful of cooks were busily getting ready for the lunch rush. The cook filleting chicken worked at a separate station from the other cooks in order to prevent chicken juices from coming into contact with other foods. Chicken was also stored separately from other foods. All cooks wore gloves and had their hair covered with a hair net or baseball cap.
In a month's time a public health Web site with current health inspection reports for Newton County restaurants will be online. Goins said a Web site for Gwinnett County is already up and running and can be accessed at www.gwinnetthealth.com.
A similar Web site for Rockdale County is currently under construction Goins said. The Gwinnett Web site contains an alphabetically accessed list of restaurant scores going back two years. The full restaurant reports can also be accessed from the site.
Goins said the new Web site has gone over very well in Gwinnett County.
"They love the new aggressiveness that public health is showing," Goins said.
According to Goins, 60 percent of all meals are prepared outside of the home.
"What this will mean ultimately is that the eating public in any restaurant will be safer throughout Georgia," Goins said. "The idea is to give the diner as much information as possible to make an educated decision as to whether they want to eat at a place."