Local restaurants score across the board in health ratings

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By Charlotte Underwood

When it comes to the world of restaurants, nothing is more important than safety and cleanliness.  

It can be the best tasting food in the world, but would it taste so good if the consumer knew the conditions under which it was prepared?  

Tennessee Health Inspector Tony Younce and District Supervisor Steve Nisley shined some light on the food industry in a Tuesday evening interview.

Basically, the department of health is responsible for regulation of food service establishments in the state of Tennessee, while the department of agriculture is responsible for inspecting grocery and convenience stores that sell food products.  The state laws, regulations and inspection procedures are designed to help ensure that food establishments are safe places to eat, according to the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH).  

With college degrees in science and months of training under their belts, not to mention 30-plus years of experience between the two of them, Younce and Nisley know their business when it comes to food.  What some people may not know is that health inspectors are not only responsible for the food industry, but they inspect tattoo parlors, issue permits to fairs and festivals, and aid animal control with rabies cases, among other responsibilities.  

In essence, they’re busy people, so they only get into the food establishments a couple times a year.

“Not as much as we would like,” said Younce, in reference to how many visits are conducted annually.  He is also the health inspector for Scott County.  Younce is responsible for inspecting approximately 300 establishments each year.  And as Younce said, “That’s a lot of ground to cover.”  

 “We’re in restaurants every four to six months,” Younce said.  “And we never announce ourselves unless it’s for a licensing or permitting appointment.”

In addition to routine inspections, unannounced inspections are also conducted in response to individual complaints, according to the TDH.

“We really don’t get very many of those around here,” Nisley said.

When inspecting sites, Younce uses Tennessee’s 44 item inspection sheet. There is a maximum score of 100 points, with two non-scoring items listed as well.  Thirteen of the items on the sheet are considered critical.  

These items include the source and condition of the food, whether the food is properly stored and covered, cooler temperatures are checked as well.  Employee hygiene and utensil and equipment sanitation are also checked.  Water sources are inspected, as is the sewage and wastewater disposal areas.  The convenience and accessibility of the toilet and hand washing facilities is also taken into consideration in the scoring.  

But it doesn’t stop there.

Younce also inspects the garbage and refuse disposal areas by checking for insects and rodents, as well as making sure outer openings are protected.  Also on Younce’s checklist is inspecting to ensure sure all toxic items such as cleaning supplies, are properly stored.  Critical items count for more points than non-critical, and when establishments are found to be out of compliance, they have 10 days to correct the problem, according to the Younce.  

Follow up inspections are conducted to determine whether compliance has been met on the critical items.  

Failure to correct these critical violations or imminent health hazards result in the closure of the establishments until corrections are made.  Serious or repeated violations may result in revocation of the establishment’s permit, according to the Nisley.  For example, an imminent health hazard could be anything from a backed up sewer system to chemicals being improperly stored and contaminating food sources.

“We give them some time to clean up their act and then we go back and check them again,” Younce said.  He explained that many restaurants scores had been adjusted from lower scores to higher ones after a second inspection.  The health score of a restaurant and whether or not it has been adjusted is required to be on display in all establishments, as is the permit for the establishment.  Failing to comply with either of these requirements is also a violation, though a non-scoring one, it is considered critical.

There are only 100 health inspectors for the whole state of Tennessee, according to Younce.  The law requires that restaurants have an unannounced inspection at least once every six-months to determine if they are in compliance with state regulations.  

Jerry Partin, owner of Charley’s Pizza, has 31-years in the food industry, so he has become acquainted with the ins and outs of inspections.

“It’s a personable business.  You’ve got to know your people and have a personal relationship with them, you know, like family,” said Partin as he looked around the restaurant that he has been a part of for 29-years.

He said he felt a great deal of responsibility to the customer.

“I give people what I would eat, I wouldn’t give anybody anything that I wouldn’t eat,” Partin said.

“People should look at health scores, they deserve to know what they are eating,” said Charley’s Manager Joe Evans.  Evans has worked at Charley’s for 11-years and said he also believes those in the food industry have a high level of responsibility to those they serve.

“My responsibility to the people is to give them quality food in a clean environment.  If you take care of the customer, they will take care of you, that’s my motto,” Evans said.

He said when it came right down to it, many of the critical violations were common sense issues.

“We make sure everything is clean and stored where it needs to be for when Tony (Younce) pops in and he does pop in,” Evans said with a smile.

“Critical violations will hurt people point wise quicker than anything; most restaurants aren’t going to be perfect anyway, so take just one or two critical violations and they are in trouble, ” Nisley said.  

He explained things could change quickly in the restaurant business.

“It can go from a good day to a bad day really quick,” Nisley said.

Problems with water and sewers can corrupt sanitary conditions quickly and if the health inspector happens to “pop in” at that time, it doesn’t take much for the points to drop.  

While health inspectors don’t exactly give grades, the point system they employ has different levels.  

Though he hesitated to say it was absolutely failing for a restaurant to score below 70, Nisley did say a score that low was unsanitary and would have several critical issues to fix in order to keep from being shut down.  The state average for restaurants is around 85, according to Younce.  

With 25-years experience in the health industry, Nisley said he has seen a few things change over time, but the one thing that hadn’t changed was the importance of his job.

“We enforce the legislature that the state adopts, and we take our job seriously,” Nisley said.

“Being a health inspector has certainly changed the way I look at eating out,” Younce said.  After being an inspector for around 14 years, Younce said he is much more aware when he eats out now.

“When I go out and eat in a county that I don’t inspect, I always look at the inspection score and at the violations as well,” Younce said with a smile.

Scores are posted not only at the establishments, but also on the Internet at www.tnanytime.com under the health section, under restaurant scores.

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