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High Country Restaurant Owners Meet With Health Officials About Inspection Scores, Other Concerns

Sanitation Score for Website 2014
Illustration by Debbie Carter

By Jesse Wood

Aug. 1, 2014. Recently, 20 local restaurant owners, managers and staff met with health officials from Appalachian District Health Department (ADHD) and the state to discuss a variety of concerns from business owners related to health inspections of food-service establishments and other regulatory policies affecting food operations.

After that meeting, three of these restaurant owners in the High Country, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and say they have a clean food-safety record and illness-free patron history, sat down with High Country Press to outline their concerns.

Not only do the owners want to explain the cause of their low scores to the public, they also want to highlight a few other concerns that they have with health inspections and the Appalachian District Health Department, which covers Ashe, Alleghany and Watauga counties. High Country Press then interviewed ADHD Director Beth Lovette, who responded to questions via email after conferring with health officials within her department and at the state level.

While Lovette said the meeting was “positive and beneficial and further opened lines of communication between the food service industry and regulatory agencies,” one of the owners – with the other two nodding their head in agreement – said, “It didn’t feel like much came from that meeting.”

Owners say they are spending nearly $2,000 on gloves when hand washing serves the same purpose.
Owners say they are spending nearly $2,000 on gloves and that California recently repealed its glove rule. Photo by Ken Ketchie

But before delving into the issues at hand, here is a summary of a letter that a patron sent to one of these restaurant owners and sort highlights one of the concerns of the owners.

On Fourth of July weekend, a couple from Greensboro took in a Horn in the West performance and, in particular, visited a well-established restaurant in the High Country to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

While they departed with raving reviews of the restaurant, they were left with one biting concern, something that caused the wife to type an email in the middle of the night – days after their dining experience.

“It was an overall wonderful experience and it did feel like something special. The food quality and flavor were exceptional; the price for the value and the atmosphere were great and we had a very accommodating and attentive server who only added to the rest of the experience,” the wife wrote.

Her concern, however, was:

“I can’t quit thinking about the low sanitation score of 92. I can’t help but wonder why such a great establishment that’s been in business for so long has what my husband and I consider a ‘low’ A. My husband and I eat out (literally) all the time at a number of fine restaurants. We’ve noticed a trend that these restaurants generally have a ‘high’ A score,” she wrote. “Would you mind letting me know why the score is what we consider a low ‘A?’ – just to put my mind at ease.  Please don’t take any offense. I’m not looking to offend anyone, but I would like to know what kind of deductions were taken from the possible 100 score.”

Inconsistencies Across NC

For one, these owners noted that about three years ago customers began relaying their concerns that health scores in High Country restaurants were lower than those in the Greensboro, Raleigh, Hickory or Asheville regions. This is troubling, these owners say, because the High Country is a tourism destination.

“We are tourist community and it doesn’t reflect well on the community itself,” a restaurant owner said while referring to the letter, noted above. “[There] are things inspectors [are docking points for up here] and not doing in other counties. Scores in Watauga, Alleghany and Ashe scores are just considerably lower than the other 100 or so health departments.”

In 2011, the state adopted the model Food Code. Owners say that scores of 90 and 92 are now in many restaurants in the region and a score in the 80’s, which previously was unheard of, is now “commonplace.”

“I was told by one of the health inspectors that a 92, 93 is a good score under the new guidelines,” this owner said, adding that while those in the industry may understand, the customers do not.

Consistency across the state is what these owners say they want.

“We are not against inspections at all. Don’t get us wrong. We want places to be inspected, but we also want to be on a level playing field with other counties in the state,” another owner said. “We don’t want to look like poor owners and operators. The goal in coming to the paper is to shed a light on these inconsistencies.”

ADHD Director Beth Lovette said that all food establishments are inspected in accordance to Rules Governing the Food Protection and Sanitation of Food Establishments outlined in the N.C. Administrative Code.

Asked about the low scores that are frustrating these owners, Lovette wrote: “A number of factors may affect the final score, and it would be inappropriate to speculate. District staff analyzed sanitation grade scores for 16 local restaurants to determine the average sanitation scores received before and after adoption of the Food Code.  The average sanitation grade score for the establishments (the four inspections prior to adoption of the Foowd Code) was 94.88.  The average sanitation grade scores for the same establishments after receiving at least two inspections after the adoption of the Food Code is 94.06.”

According to a database of health inspection grades, ADHD has inspected more than 600 food-serving facilities since July 28, 2013 – with 372 of those in Watauga County, 148 in Ashe County and 83 in Alleghany County.

Asked for scoring averages across other parts of the state, Lovette said that she wasn’t aware of any comparison data to measure scores in other parts of the state.

“However, a number of factors may affect the final score, such as the type of violation, active managerial control, and food safety knowledge among food handlers. The state has also increased training for local environmental health specialists to improve consistency throughout the state,” Lovette wrote.

Coming Around Only Once Per Year

Another thing that irks these restaurant owners is that the health inspectors with the Appalachian District Health Department are only coming once a year to inspect the restaurants.

In the past, these owners say, if an establishment received a less-than-stellar grade, it would be able to improve that grade a quarter later. Now, the owner must wait an entire year to improve a grade or receive a new score.

Owners said they have heard rumblings about the lack of funding to do four inspections a year and that the new state law requiring local health departments to check carbon monoxide detectors in lodging facilities have eaten into resources previously reserved for health inspections at dining facilities – both of which Lovette referred to in her responses.

“A risk-based frequency of inspection system is utilized. The number of inspections per year (1 to 4) for each establishment is based on the type of food served, preparation of food (e.g., number of times a food item goes through the temperature danger zone), and the population served. Risk-based frequency of inspections provides the use of limited resources in the most efficient manner,” Lovette said. “Also, district environmental health staff are currently responsible for enforcing the new state law which requires all lodging facilities to provide carbon monoxide detectors. This is critical in our effort to protect the public’s health and safety.”

Added Costs and Non- ‘Food-Related Criticisms’

“We are all in favor of food-related criticisms,” one of the owners said, before naming off a list of things that the local health department is deducting that, in his or her mind, has nothing to do with food safety.

Supposedly inadequate lighting; rusty shelves; where the outside grease containers are stored; floors and sinks not being caulked; a garbage can without a lid in the women’s bathroom; a water pitcher sitting in front of a hand-washing sink because counter space was lost for a new, inspector-required, hand-washing sink that is five feet from another hand-washing sink; tomatoes for the day being labeled wrong, a beverage container without a lid, a napkin on the floor and so on.

“[Those] are things inspectors [are docking points for up here] and not doing in other counties,” this owner said, adding that making up for some of these deductions aren’t practical or cost effective.

These three owners said they have spent a collective $10,000 for new shelving where prior shelving racks for cans were becoming rusty. They also say they have spent thousands of more dollars for “lighting that looks like a tanning bad and [the health inspectors] want more.” In addition, owners said, while adding that California has repealed the glove-rule, they are spending about $2,000 per year on the continual replacement of required gloves when hand washing would do the trick for nearly free.

“There is no rhyme or reason. Major things could be happening, but they are so busy worrying about lights and a cup without a lid,” an owner said. “We take this very, very seriously. This is our livelihood. This is how we feed our families. I know [the health inspectors] have families. What if they can look at if from that perspective?”

“If it was just food-safety related,” another owner said, his or her establishment would have excellent scores between 97 and 100. Anything docked below that, this owner said, has nothing to do with “sanitation of the food or causing food-borne illnesses.”

Lovette said that when the Food Code, which “provides North Carolina with a regulatory foundation that focuses on risk factors that cause foodborne illness,” was adopted in 2011, one of the most significant changes included no bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat (RTE) food.

“Employee handwashing, no bare hand contact with RTE food, and sick workers not handling food are three factors that work together to prevent and control the transmission of pathogens, such as Norovirus and E. coli. No bare contact with RTE food may be achieved by using gloves, utensils, deli paper, etc., so, there are other non-glove alternatives,” Lovette wrote. “The other items mentioned (lighting, shelving, employee drinks) were requirements prior to adopting the Food Code and have not significantly changed.”

‘A Common Goal’

After the meeting between the restaurant owners and health officials, Lovette said: “From the meeting it is clear that both groups understand that we share a common goal in protecting the health and safety of the public and having a common understanding and good working relationship is crucial to achieving this.”

As noted above, the owners said they have an incentive to operate and take pride in running an establishment that is safe – not to mention one that offers an “overall wonderful experience” where the food quality, flavor, value, service and atmosphere are great – as the Fourth of July patron wrote to one of the business owners.

“Ultimately, everyone is trying to do the right thing,” an owner said.

But Lovette stressed that ADHD’s mission is to “promote and protect the health and safety of the public we serve through the direct enforcement of North Carolina Public Health laws and rules.”

“We also understand that the actions by our department have a direct impact on the foodservice industry and that developing good working relationships with all of our stakeholders is the best means of ensuring that the health and safety of the public who live in and visit the High Country is met,” Lovette said.