Restaurant Health Inspections Anything but Consistent

By: Colson Barnes and Whitney M. Wyszynski

“It could be as simple as an open soda can in the kitchen,” said Kyu Lee, manager of Wingster.

He shook his head and shrugged, thinking about the health inspection score of 70 percent Wingster received on Nov. 13, 2012.

A window behind the cash register showed the cook busy preparing a variety of sauces.  The phone buzzed with delivery orders.  Anxious customers ordering delivery are unable to see the health score mounted next to the door.

“Simple things will deduct points from the score,” Lee said, looking at the kitchen. “We all have different responsibilities to clean this place.”

Restaurants like Wingsters are inspected one to two times per year by the Clarke County Health Department.  An analysis of restaurant scores in Athens revealed:

■      The Northeast Georgia Health District does not update the restaurant inspection website regularly.

■      There is no consistent system for documenting the scores online, and past scores are not archived online for public access.

■      The time of day, inspector, and time of year can affect a restaurant’s health score.

Nationwide Trends

According to the New York Times, many restaurant operators complain that numerical scores “can be confusing or deceptive.”  Customers often do not know the specific policies that detracted from the optimal score.

The Times-Picayune determined that Louisiana’s restaurant inspectors were more lenient than national counterparts.  The paper determined that “the difference seems to be in how each municipality enforces its safety regulations.”

“But restaurateurs complain, reasonably, that it’s a racket for the city to squeeze more money out of them,” Forbes writer, Josh Barro said. “A restaurant that gets a bad grade is inclined to pay for a re-inspection so it can display an A, but it still has to pay penalties based on the negative results of the first inspection.”

The Georgia Department of Community Health, through the county health departments, sends an inspector to inspect facilities where food is consumed on or off the premises.

Six inspectors monitor restaurants in Athens, and they do not notify the restaurants before the inspection occurs.  The names of the inspectors are not provided to the public.

Restaurants are given a numerical score from 0-100 based on the cleanliness of the facility. A score less than 70 is considered a failing grade; however, the restaurant will receive a follow-up inspection within 10 days.

Restaurant inspection scores are listed on the Clarke County Health Department website, with the date and brief explanations of violations.

After interviewing representatives at restaurants with the five lowest health ratings, many agreed that the regulations have become more difficult.  Wingster, Johnny’s New York Style Pizza, Plantation Buffet, Jimmy John’s, and Waffle House scored the lowest, as of Mar. 7, 2013.

[Would your kitchen pass a health department inspection?]

Some of the most popular restaurants fall short of a passing grade due to wrong food temperature control, improperly marked foods and poor employee health.

Food inspections are divided into two categories—critical and non-critical.  Deductions that have risk factors outlined by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are considered critical. The non-critical categories include factors that are designated by the Federal Food and Drug Administration.

[What are the most common violations?]

Success Stories

Howard Anderson, manager of the Jimmy John’s on Baxter Street, has worked with Jimmy John’s since 2006.

“We are very systematic here. We have a punch list that comes from Jimmy John’s corporate, but it doesn’t take into account the Georgia health regulations,” Anderson said.

Jimmy John’s scored 75 percent on its Mar. 7, 2013 inspection.  Anderson headed for the Health Department a mere day after the original inspection.

“I went to talk to the health inspector about what we can do to improve our score,” he said. “I retrained everyone on hand washing and the basic lessons about diseases.”

Anderson believes it was a lack of training that was the problem, but he also noted that this inspection was different than past inspections.

“It was more difficult this past time,” Anderson said.  He noted that some other restaurants may not be following some of the lesser known policies.

“She [the inspector] was specific about things like needing to spray the floor before we sweep it,” Anderson said.

Jimmy John’s on Baxter St. worked to improve. The restaurant’s score skyrocketed to a 100 percent on the follow-up inspection.

Herschel’s Famous 34, a new restaurant on Broad Street, received a 100 percent on its first inspection.

“I think it definitely makes a difference [to have a good health score],” said Lee Purser, Herschel’s Famous 34 manager.

Health inspection scores are a glimpse of the restaurant’s performance, but most establishments want a perfect score, according to Andrea Kerr, the environmental health manager at the Clarke Country Health Department.

“It is unrealistic to expect that a complex, full-service food operation can routinely avoid any violations,” the health department website highlighted. “An inspection conducted on any given day may not be representative of the overall, long-term cleanliness of an establishment.”

Ms. Kerr said the food service inspection scores are uploaded to the Northeast Health District website nightly.  However, Jimmy John’s follow-up inspection score from Mar. 13, 2013 was not updated until Mar. 26, 2013, per this blog’s request.

There is no consistent system for denoting follow-up scores.  Some restaurants, like Wingster, display the most recent score, whereas other restaurants, such as Wok Star, display both the original and follow-up score.

Psychology in Decision-Making

Many psychological studies have determined the effects of extraneous factors on decision-making.  Factors, such as the time of day, day of the week, and weather conditions, can affect a person’s decisions.

“Even patently false or irrelevant information often affects choices in significant ways,” according to the New York Times.

A recent study at the California Institute of Technology determined that people’s value judgments affect decision-making.  Value-based decisions occur in the prefrontal cortex, which affects personality expression and social behavior.

The prefrontal cortex is known for the executive function.  This function differentiates between conflicting thoughts—better and best, good and bad, and correct and incorrect.

Inspector discretion plays a key role in restaurant health scores.  Local restaurants complain that certain inspectors are tougher than others.

Possible Solution

The names of inspectors are not released publically, and past scores are not archived on the Northeast Georgia Health District website.  Assigning ID numbers to inspectors could be a possible solution.

ID numbers could be disclosed on the website, and if citizens spotted suspicious score fluctuations, they could report findings to the health department.  This would protect the inspector’s identity while monitoring the consistency of the scores.

Inspector discretion affects the public’s view of a restaurant, and this system could make the process more transparent.

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One Comment on “Restaurant Health Inspections Anything but Consistent”

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