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Restaurant scores improve, owners still concerned
Claim scoring system is unfair
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Restaurant Owners Alliance members are still not satisfied with the restaurant inspection process, but other Newton County restaurant owners and East Metro Health District officials continue to place the blame on a lack of effort and education among some restaurant owners, not a flawed inspection system.

Alliance members said they haven’t received any additional training or support from the EMHD, one of the promises made at the June 18 meeting. At the meeting the members asked for more training, a public statement from EMHD explaining restaurant score inspection sheets and a 48-hour hold on any score that was disputed by an owner.

As of Friday, no training classes had been held, but one is scheduled for July 22, and so far 25 people have signed up, EMHD Communication Coordinator Vernon Goins said. As far as a public explanatory notice, Goins said officials are working on a document for the public that will put the new regulations in laymen’s terms. Finally, on the 48-hour hold request, Goins said officials looked into the matter and found that the Georgia Open Records Act makes this impossible to grant.

Debbie’s Deli and Café Owner Debbie Cussen, the spearhead behind the ROA, said she felt that nothing came out of the June 18 meeting. She said the EMHD hasn’t communicated with restaurant owners and that one two-hour class probably won’t answer all of their questions.

“We still feel like we’re beating our heads against the wall,” Cussen said. “The state feels like they did what they had to do, but we brought up specific things we wanted to see happen, like the 48-hour waiting period of publishing scores, and we haven’t seen those things.”

One helpful event that could come soon is the publishing of an interpretation manual for the new regulations. All parties have admitted there are some confusing or gray areas, although the alliance owners believe there are many more than EMHD officials do, and the interpretation manual should help address those. Goins said the state environmental health agency is almost finished with the manual and will release it soon.

Plain Nuts Catering Owner Jim Williamson is among those who believe that both the new regulations and new inspector Jason Reagan are stringent but fair.

“He’s never been anything but helpful to me. He’s stern but he gets his point across. He will even make suggestions of things that aren’t wrong but could be improved on,” Williamson said. “He’s not my best friend, but he’s got a job to, and it’s a difficult job. Maybe we got lulled to sleep and weren’t as strict as we should have been, but I feel safer eating in this county with some who overdoes it.”

Williamson said he’s looked at some of violations people have been written up for and some of them are quite serious, like handling raw meat or storing raw chicken above vegetables. He said all owners need to be more educated and need to spend more time educating their employees.

“You shouldn’t be the only person in the kitchen who knows the rules. You need to have a couple of food safety managers who know the rules. Most of it is common sense, and as long as you know the major rules and some of the smaller rules, you should be able to stay in the 90s,” he said.

know the major rules and some of the smaller rules, you should be able to stay in the 90s,” he said.

Williamson said the new regulations center on three things: properly heating and cooling food, properly storing food and proper sanitation. He did, however, agree that some of the smaller mark offs, like not having a bathroom door that automatically closes, should probably be under a different category, instead of being lumped under food safety. However, when it comes down to it, Williamson said his own inspections are so strict that the official health inspections are usually easier.

Goins said that most restaurants in Newton County are passing the regulations.

“Let me reiterate that the lack of understanding of the regs is a very small issue in Newton County. The vast majority of restaurants understand and follow the regulations” he said.

However, the ROA recently contacted the Georgia Restaurant Association and the GRA found the high number of U’s and C’s in Newton County startling enough to send down Public Affairs Director Keisha Carter.

“We definitely saw that trend; the failure rate in Newton County is extremely high. We talked to the Department of Human Resources about that and the failure rate across the state has definitely risen as the new code has been implemented, but both the state and GRA are aware of situation down in Newton County and are working to try to fix the situation.”

Carter said the owners need to work to understand the regulations better and that the EMHD needs to make sure they are training the restaurants properly so that the restaurants are able to comply fully.

Carter did say that most restaurants are passing their follow-up inspections, which shows that the problems may not be too serious, however improvements should be made to make sure the first scores are higher. Cussen has often said one of her main complaints, is how a restaurant can jump from a U to an A so quickly, because that must mean that the original problems aren’t that big to begin with, however, health officials said some fairly serious infractions can be corrected quickly, like hand washing issues and cooking foods at the right temperatures.

Cussen said she and other members of the ROA are joining the GRA to get access to more resources, including legal help. She said the GRA can be a strong advocate and effective go-between for restaurants.

Carter said that her organization will help provide education and resources, like instructional posters, to restaurants, in particular the smaller, independent restaurants which don’t always have the profit margin to afford these items. Independent restaurants have been receiving the majority of the low scores, although several chains have also failed. The News attempted to contact some chain restaurants, but many couldn’t speak on the issue because of corporate confidentiality agreements.

In addition to joining the GRA, ROA members have been working with former environmental health inspector Tina Davis. Davis, who worked as a Newton County inspector from 2001 to 2009, said she is trying to help as many owners understand the new regulations as she can. Davis said she has compared scores from counties across the state and was also troubled by Newton County’s higher number of low and failing scores.

Davis said she hasn’t looked at many individual inspection forms yet, but she has listened to owners and believes that some do have legitimate complaints about gray areas.

Goins and other EMHD officials have said that part of the reason for Newton County’s recent rash of bad scores is that the county has been behind the curve of many other counties, which have already experienced lower scores, learned from them and moved on.
Davis said this could be true since Newton County is a smaller county with only one inspector, and on top of that, inspections under the new regulations take about three to four hours to complete, whereas inspections under the old regulations only took about an hour. However, Davis said in that case she wondered why she wasn’t seeing as many low scores in other small counties. She said a guess would be that other counties are still teaching their restaurants the new regulations, and, therefore, not counting them off for every infraction. She said the new regulations were given a maximum two-year implementation period which ends December 2009, so some counties could be extending their grace period.

Restaurant scores have been solid so far in July, eight A’s, one B, but several C’s and U’s were received throughout May and June. All parties have said that the only way to solve these problems is to continue to work together, but communication continues to be disjointed.