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New report cards for restaurants from Health Department

Starting September 8, a new report card system was instituted for Mississippi restaurants. The previous pass or fail systems has been replaced by a “ABC” grading system that gives more information to people who want to know that the restaurant where they are eating is preparing food safely.

The new reports will be posted prominently next to the restaurant’s license. A report with a large green “A” on it means that when the inspection was conducted, no critical violations were found. A large green “B” that means the last inspection found one or more critical violations, but those violations were corrected while the inspector stood there.

If an inspector finds critical violations that can’t be immediately corrected, but need to be corrected in the next few day, there will be a big orange “C”, which means critical violations were identified and the inspector has given them a specific time frame to address the issue. Usually restaurants will be required to fix the problem in a few days, but a maximum of ten days is allowed. There will also be a date on the inspection report if it has a “C” on it that will indicate when the correction is required to be completed. If the correction is not made by that date, Mississippi State Department of Health will start the process of closing the restaurant.

There is one more circumstance where a restaurant can get a “C”. If the restaurant had one or more critical violations that were corrected, but they were the same critical violations found during the last inspection — if it was the second time the inspector found the problem—that results in a grade of “C,” as well, and a re-inspection is scheduled.

Industry input

Mike Cashion, CAE, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association (MHRA), says MHRA did work with and is continuing to work with the Health Department on the new rating system.

“First and foremost, people need to know that there is no higher priority in the industry besides protecting the health of the consuming public,” Cashion says. “This inspection system provides for accurate assessment of the critical issues that affect public health such as time, temperatures, personal hygiene, storage of food, etc. There is very little difference between an ‘A’ and a ‘B.’ A restaurant receives a ‘B’ if a violation was noticed, but was corrected immediately. The ‘C’ rating indicates that a problem may need some time to correct, but the restaurant does not pose an immediate health risk. For example, the temperature setting on a dishwasher may need to be adjusted by a few degrees.”

Cashion says he is confident that the “ABC” system will provide the consumers with a better understanding of the level of food safety for each every restaurant and retain their confidence in the industry’s ability to produce and deliver safe food.

Finding the results

Interim State Health Officer Dr. Ed Thompson says the new system will make it easier to know the results of the most recent inspection of a restaurant. People can find that out now if they go to MSDH Web site.

“Now when you go a restaurant all you see is pass and fail,” Thompson says. “That’s not really all that helpful. Many people have said that. We think the new system will make it easier for people to know at a glance what is going on in restaurant.

“The new system doesn’t change the way we inspect restaurants. We still inspect according to USDA guidelines, which are a science-based method for identifying risk. We will continue to focus on critical violations. A critical violation is a violation of the food code that could actually make you sick. Some regulations are important, but are tangential. They are processes and procedures that don’t have direct potential to cause illness.

“But if a refrigerator temperature is too warm, there is a chance for bacteria to grow and that can cause illness. Or cutting raw meat on a surface, and turning around and putting fresh vegetables on it that are served without being cooked, is a good way to transfer bacteria from meat to vegetables. What we look for is to see if there are critical violations.”

Restaurant patrons don’t need to look for the fine print if they see an “A” or a “B”. Both are acceptable. But if a “C” rating is posted, it indicates there are concerns that need to be addressed. Looking closely at the report will tell one what the violation was, and the date it needed to be corrected by. If it hasn’t been corrected, patrons may want to talk to a manager or eat elsewhere.

There is no “F” rating in the system. That is because if an inspector finds a dangerous situation that has immediately potential to cause illness, the department starts a procedure to shut down the restaurant. And changes have been instituted to speed up that process.

Accelerating the process

Except in an emergency, a restaurant owner is entitled to due process when facing closure of the restaurant. The owner can request hearings, and present evidence that could potentially convince the district health officer that closing is not necessary.

“What we want to do is speed up the process if an owner does request a hearing in regard to a notice of intent to close,” Thompson says. “We can complete the process, and make a decision in a much shorter period of time. A restaurant that needs to be closed won’t be able to stay open by playing the system and stretching out the time process. We want plenty of ability for due process, but we will be able to accomplish the decision much more quickly.”

During Senate hearings approximately a year ago into problems with the Health Department, concerns were raised that when a restaurant was found in need of being closed, the district Health Department staff responsible for it weren’t allowed to do it without permission from the central office.

“I’m not sure whether that was true or not, but it was alleged,” Thompson says. “We have now made it clear in our policy that central office approval is not needed. The district staff and health officer can do that without asking for permission. That has been communicated to our staff.”

While the new rating system has started, it will be a while before all restaurants have the rating on their walls. That is because the restaurants are inspected on rotation. The new system will be phased in after their next inspection. Also, Thompson says in some areas of the state health inspectors have not yet completed training on the new rating system. He expects to have the systems in place statewide and all restaurants on the new rating system by the end of the year.

Cooperation expected

Thompson expects good cooperation from restaurants with the new system.

“It is bad for business to make your customers sick,” he says. “No one has a greater interest in making that food safe than the owner and staff of a restaurant. It is not common to find a restaurant that has an unsafe practice in place that doesn’t want to identify and change it. Sometimes when people are unable or unwilling to adopt safe practices, it is necessary to close the restaurant. But we don’t want to give impression this is something we have to do very often. Usually owners are eager to comply with our recommendations about how to provide safe food service.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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