COVINGTON - New restaurant grading regulations set by the Georgia Department of Human Resources have resulted in much lower inspection scores since they were implemented Dec. 1, according to a spokesman for the East Metro Health District.
Scores have dropped by about 7 to 10 percent in the East Metro area, which includes Newton, Rockdale and Gwinnett counties, and more than 20 percent in other districts across the state, Spokesman Vernon Goins said.
The new, "more aggressive" regulations have resulted in several restaurant closings in Gwinnett County, but none so far in Newton and Rockdale, Goins said.
"What we're trying to do is provide as much information as possible to the dining customer so they can make an educated decision about whether or not they want to eat at a certain place," he said.
The most noticeable change that will be seen by customers is a letter grade on inspection reports, Goins said.
Establishments scoring between a 90 and 100 will receive an A; those scoring between 80 and 89 will receive a B; a score of 70 to 79 merits a C; and anything 69 or below is a U, for unsatisfactory.
Establishments receiving two consecutive unsatisfactory scores will be closed and must score a 100 upon reinspection before they can reopen, he said.
So far, four Newton County restaurants have received an unsatisfactory grade - Wing Nook on Salem Road; Bella's Italian Ristorante on Ga. Highway 81 North; Mamie's Inc. on U.S. Highway 278; and Waffle House on Alcovy Road.
Both Mamie's and Waffle House have both been reinspected, raising their scores to an 85 and 72 respectively.
Mickey Dee's Sports Bar and Grill on U.S. Highway 278 dropped from a 98 to a 77 after the new regulations went in place. Upon reinspection on Feb. 8, the restaurant scored an 84.
"I didn't take it well," said owner David Bass of the lower scores.
Bass said he was docked nine points for half and half that was at 43 degrees rather than the required 42 degrees, and another six points for a bottle of headache medication that was left in the kitchen.
But even with what seemed to him like excessive deductions, Bass said he knows many of the new requirements are in place for good reason.
"You have to make peace with it ... We'll do better on the next inspection when they come because I know what they're wanting. You have to go through a little trial and error," he said.
James Hamm, owner of Town House Cafe in downtown Covington, said he, too, is comfortable with the changes.
"It's been fine. I can handle it. I'm personable. Whatever they tell me to do, I do it," he said.
Town House Cafe scored a 70 during a January inspection, but Hamm said that was because he was out sick and the people filling in weren't familiar with the rules.
"You have to follow the rules and that's what you do. You can't be crying about it," Hamm said.
Goins said there have been more unsatisfactory scores in Rockdale than in Newton, but said there were fewer 10 establishments involved.
Score sheets must be posted in a spot that can easily be seen by customers, including on the outside of the drive-thru window, Goins said.
The state is cracking down harder on food preparation and storage, all in the name of safety, Goins said.
Previously, if inspectors saw a violation, they were allowed to give the restaurant owner time to correct it and were not required to mark it on the score sheet.
But now, inspectors aren't given that latitude. If something's wrong, they have to mark it and deduct points, Goins said.
Managers and operators are interviewed at each inspection regarding their knowledge of food safety practices, he said, and each location is required to have someone certified in food safety management.
Restaurants will be categorized depending on the type of food they serve and the hazard level of the food they serve.
There are three categories of restaurants: A category 1 restaurant would be a low-hazard, low-volume service establishment such as a donut shop; a category 2 could be something like a sandwich shop; while a category 3 is a full-scale restaurant.
Category 3 restaurants will be inspected more often than the lower categories.
The regulations are set by the Food and Drug Administration and are already followed by most states, Goins said.
"The main purpose, beyond safety, is education of food preparers and the public. We can't mention often enough how important it is that the dining public know what the condition of the restaurant is that they choose to eat at," Goins said, adding that 60 percent of meals are prepared outside the home and 76 million cases of food poisoning are reported every year.
"We tolerate this, and we are beyond toleration in Georgia, and we decided that we can do something about the numbers of people who are sickened by unsanitary food in service establishments," he said.
Scores will be posted on the Internet within the next few weeks.
Rockdale County restaurant ratings can be viewed at www.rockdalehealth.com; Newton scores will be available at www.newtonhealth dept.com.
Some restaurant operators have misinterpreted the effective date of the new regulations, he said, adding that Dec. 1 was the date the new requirements went into effect.
Goins asked the public to help monitor the restaurants and report any violations by calling 404-657-2700.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.