COVINGTON - Representatives from the East Metro Health District met with local restaurant owners Wednesday to hear their concerns about restaurant inspections in Newton County.
The restaurant owners are members of the newly formed Restaurant Owners/Operators Alliance, a group that wants the health district to do something about what they claim is unfair and inconsistent scoring of their eating establishments. They say that too many local restaurants, some with long-standing good reputations, are getting failing scores. They blame unclear and unreasonable regulations and a hostile inspector.
In the end, the director of the East Metro Department of Health told the restaurant owners that they could attend additional training and make their voices heard by commenting on a new
interpretation manual that is in the works.
The meeting took place at the Newton County Administration Building and was also attended by Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan and State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle.
Among the main concerns of the restaurant group was a lack of consistency in scoring.
Capers Hiott of Luigi's Pizza said some restaurants are marked for violations that others get by with. He said he has been inspected seven times in the eight months he's been open. Some violations weren't marked until the fifth or sixth inspection, he said.
Debbie Cussen of Debbie's Deli and Cafe agreed. She said she got docked four points for a trash can that was in the exact spot it had been on a previous inspection, when it was counted as a violation.
The owners say that kind of inconsistency creates confusion. Sometimes even the inspector can't give justification for the rules, according to Hiott.
For example, Hiott said he was told he could touch pizza dough with his bare hands because any germs would be killed when it went into the oven, but he could not touch the pizza toppings, which also go in the oven. He said the inspector could not explain the discrepancy.
The restaurant group also complained they're getting too many points counted off for minor infractions that are not a threat to public health.
Cussen pointed out that some restaurants are getting a U (unsatisfactory), with a score as low as the 50s and within two days jumping up to an A.
"That means these things aren't that horrendous," she said.
She noted that one local restaurant closed after receiving a 72, while others remained open after getting scores in the 50s or lower.
Joseph Sternberg, environmental health district director, explained that violations are divided into sections on the scoring form. If one section counts nine points, that many points will be deducted from the score, even if only one violation occurred. He said that the decision to close an establishment depends upon the risk to public health. For example, if there is improper refrigeration in a facility, it would get docked nine points, and could be closed with a 91, or A, score.
The restaurant owners also complained about the way the violations are written.
Gwen Spears, owner of Smiley's Restaurant in Porterdale, said she had an unused can opener under a table that had rusted. The inspector's report only said "dirty can opener," she said, noting that the public would think it was being used to open food.
"The inspector shouldn't have to decide whether to believe you," responded Newton County Board of Health Director Dr. Lloyd Hofer. "They're required to inspect what's there at the time. It's like saying, "I'm not going fishing but I've got all this fishing equipment in my truck.'"
All the owners agree their trouble started when a new inspector came on board last year.
Some even alleged the inspector laughs when handing out low scores.
"There's nothing funny about giving failing grades to restaurants in a community that's hurting right now," Cussen said, adding the inspector has a "condescending, insulting, better-than-thou attitude."
Spears said the inspector deducted points because he didn't see a thermometer in her refrigerator. When she offered to show him the thermometer, he refused.
"He smiles when he gives you (the score sheet) and says, "You're not going to like this,'" Spears said.
But the restaurant owners say low scores are no laughing matter, because their livelihood is being affected.
Spears said her business is off $6,000 per week since her score was published.
Some have alleged the low scores are an effort to raise more money, since they have to pay reinspection fees totaling close to $300.
But Hofer said the fees generated are not enough to cover operations of the Environmental Health Department. He said the fee structure is set up so those who are inspected more pay more.
The fees are set by the Newton County Board of Health and approved by county commissioners, he said.
According to Newton County Administrative Assistant John Middleton, fees have not been modified since 2002.
Funding for the Environmental Health Department is split between the county, the state and income, or fees, collected during the prior year. The state handles all collected fees.
For fiscal year 2010, Environmental Health is being funded at $337,751, with $162,519 coming from the prior year fees; $116,227 from a state grant; and $59,005 from the county.
Hofer said while training was offered to restaurant owners prior to the new regulations going into effect, given the confusion, another course would be offered to the local group within the next month.
An interpretation manual is being developed to make sure regulations are being interpreted the same in all districts and a draft will be available for public comment in the next 30 days.
Hofer encouraged restaurant owners to submit their comments online at www.newtonhealthdept.com.
The focus of the regulations is to prevent the transmission of disease, he said.
"Because of the new food regulations, you've never been safer to eat out in the state of Georgia than you are now," he said.
East Metro Health District spokesman Vernon Goins said Georgia is one of the last states to adopt FDA regulations for restaurant health inspections.
The regulations were to go into effect in spring 2006, but were delayed until December 2007 to give restaurant owners more time to familiarize themselves, he said.
Restaurant owners do have an appeals process if they are not satisfied with their scores, from the local level up to the state and finally in a court of law, he said.
But Holt, speaking at the end of the meeting, said it's a problem if restaurant owners feel targeted by an inspector.
"The power that an individual inspector has over a restaurant's reputation is a profound thing and it needs to be used carefully, cautiously and judiciously," he said. "The idea that it could be used irresponsibly is simply unacceptable. ... It troubles me that it's taken this long to get to this level of response."
Crystal Tatum can be reached at email@example.com.