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N.C. eateries score ‘A’ grades despite infestations

March 2nd, 2011

N.C. eateries score ‘A’ grades despite infestations

By MIKE BAKER
Associated Press

Accompanying Photos

Alex Brandon (Associated Press)

CARY (AP) — North Carolina’s restaurant inspectors award top grades for sanitation even when the establishments they examine have obvious problems such as roach or rodent infestations, according to an Associated Press analysis of state and county records.

Just one out of every 1,000 inspections over the past five years resulted in a “C” on the grade scale. And of more than 375,000 examinations during that span, only 17 facilities failed by scoring below a “C,” resulting in a brief shutdown.

The average food service inspection led to a sanitation score of 98 out of 100 — a grade of high “A.”

State rules limit how many points inspectors can deduct for specific violations, even critical ones, meaning that establishments must have a series of problems to record a “B” or lower. Because of that, the posted scores at restaurants can give patrons a false sense that the kitchens producing their food have near-perfect cleanliness.

“A critical violation is a risk factor,” said Dr. Angela Fraser, a food-safety education specialist at Clemson University who previously served on an advisory committee related to North Carolina’s sanitation ratings. “If a risk factor is present, it’s not a Grade A restaurant in my mind.”

She believes that any restaurant with a critical violation should score a B or lower.

During the most recent inspection at Mongolian & Thai restaurant in the town of Cary, outside Raleigh, a health examiner awarded an “A” grade despite finding three critical violations: A slicer was not clean, several types of cooked chicken were too cold and uncooked chicken had been sitting out so long it was almost at room temperature.

Mongolian & Thai patron Neil Battle, 28, wasn’t bothered too much by those errors during a recent visit, saying the only sanitary issues that he really pays attention to are related to bugs. What Battle didn’t realize was the eatery also had two points deducted from its November inspection score for a roach “infestation” that included live bugs on the floor, on walls, on baking soda boxes and behind signs. There was also a lot of “roach debris,” according to the report.

“If I was an inspector and saw bugs, I’d think at least 10 points should be taken off,” Battle said.

Mongolian & Thai manager Haixia Liu said all violations listed in her restaurant’s recent inspection have been fixed, no bug problems currently exist and an exterminator comes regularly.

Pest problems trigger a maximum two-point deduction from a restaurant’s score and are not considered critical because the science shows they are less likely to cause foodborne illness than other issues such as food handling. On hundreds of occasions, establishments with insect or rodent issues have still scored a 100 or higher because workers took a food-safety course that resulted in two bonus points. Many bug issues appeared to be small or isolated, with an inspector finding just flies, or one roach or evidence of a pest. Sometimes, however, inspectors find several bugs or signs of a more invasive problem.

Republican Sen. Stan Bingham, a leader on health issues in the General Assembly, said he was disappointed to hear that restaurants with large pest problems were still scoring high “A” grades. He said he wants to discuss the issue further with state health officials.

“I hate that you told me that,” Bingham said half-jokingly. He said he relies a lot on score postings to gauge a restaurant’s cleanliness and considers “B” grades to be essentially failing grades.

Larry Michael, who leads the state of North Carolina’s food-protection efforts, said a major roach or rodent problem around food or food-preparation areas would be grounds for the immediate suspension of a restaurant’s license. But local inspectors don’t appear to be exercising that option often, as some are finding severe problems and still providing establishments with “A” grades.

Some other examples from around the state include:

— In 2009, at a Havelock branch of Sonic Drive-In, an inspector concluded there was an “infestation of german cockroaches” after seeing live pests, insect waste and egg cases present along a storage area and soda hoses. The restaurant scored a 96.5 even though the issue was a repeat violation following an insect problem during the previous visit just six months earlier. A new manager said the problem was isolated and there have been no recent issues.

— At a romantic destination called The Farm at Old Edwards in Highlands in 2006, an inspector found a “severe mice infestation” and urged workers to clean all utensils, keep all food in containers and clean the floor of mice droppings. The site scored a 93.5. Richard Delany, a new president at Old Edwards, said there have been no pest issues since then. Inspections show it hasn’t been a problem in recent years.

— An inspection at Sub Tropics in Atlantic Beach scored a 91 in 2008 despite a string of problems including a “severe roach infestation.” The examiner cited dead roaches and flies the following year, for a score of 93.5. Then it cited bugs among the problems again in 2010 and awarded a score of 94.5. Repeated phone calls to the restaurant went unanswered.

State officials changed the grading system in mid-2008 to put more emphasis on critical violations that are more likely to cause a health hazard. Inspectors who find employees not washing hands or keeping foods at improper temperatures can deduct a maximum of four points — down from five points before the rule changes added more deduction categories — for each critical error. The inspector can return within 10 days to make sure the critical violation is fixed, although those corrections frequently happen on the spot.

Any restaurant that scores below an “A” can also request a re-inspection within days to try to boost its grade. Restaurants that score less than a 70 — the minimum level to grade as a “C” — are immediately shut down, but they can resume business by getting a re-inspection and getting a passing score. There are no “D” or “F” grades.

Inspectors do have the option of seeking the immediate suspension of a permit if they find an imminent hazard. About 350 permits have been suspended in each of the past two years, according to state data. But local environmental officials said this typically occurs when there is a problem affecting operations, such as a water line break or a lack of hot water.

Clemson University’s Fraser said the scores are meaningless to her because the system doesn’t focus enough on violations that are a risk to public health. She noted that a restaurant with a series of minor infractions — such as improperly stored utensils or insufficient lighting — could end up scoring worse than a restaurant where workers aren’t washing their hands.

Several county health leaders said they give establishments time to correct pest problems instead of threatening an immediate suspension. Frances Breedlove, who oversees the food sanitation section in Wake County, said a suspension would likely only happen if there were roaches crawling everywhere and into food, or if there were live mice, or if there were mice droppings on equipment.

“It has to be pretty bad before we would actually suspend somebody’s permit for that,” Breedlove said. “I think in most cases you give them a chance unless it was just horrendous.”

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