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Georgia's food service regulations updated

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

The 40-page book of Georgia food service rules and regulations sitting on the desk of Henry County Environmental Health Specialist Tiffany Harris is all but obsolete now.

The state's Public Health Food Service Rules and Regulations, which go into effect today, have undergone updates that have increased the book's volume to a hefty 149 pages.

The book includes major changes in how restaurants prepare food - changes overdue and necessary to protect restaurant and deli patrons, public health officials say.

The amended regulations, for instance, prohibit bare-handed contact with read-to-eat foods. Food holding temperatures and procedures also have changed slightly to prevent food-borne illnesses and cross contamination.

Once food is prepared, new rules require it to be maintained at 135 degrees. And, freshly prepared food cannot be mixed with standing food at restaurant buffets, said Robert Lewis, a Clayton County environmental health specialist. "The most common violations for restaurants have been improper handling of food and inadequate holding and cooking temperatures," he said.

Lewis is one of six Clayton County specialists who inspect the 733 restaurants in the county, including those at Clayton's schools and at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

There are four full-time specialists who inspect approximately 425 restaurants in Henry County.

Lewis says that restaurant owners and managers have accepted most of the new regulations, with some caution. Their questions have regarded the certified food service manager (CFSM), now required at each restaurant in the state. CFSM's can be hired or trained in-house in food safety management, and would be responsible for maintaining safe, clean food preparation practices in the restaurant.

"Their main concern [though] is the scoring process," Lewis added. Instead of seeing numeric scores on posted inspections, restaurant patrons will begin seeing letter scores on inspections. Eateries will earn an 'A' for inspections scoring 91 or higher; 'B' for scores from 81-90, 'C' for scores from 70-80, and 'U' for any score below 69.

Restaurants that score a 'U' will be re-inspected within 10 days of the original inspection. "The inspection report is a snapshot of what happened that day," said Veronda Griffin, spokeswoman for the Clayton Board of Health. "It's more of an intense inspection [because] we're trying to make it safer," she said. "The primary focus is to always protect the public when they dine out."

For the most part, Mameleye Mbaye, a chef and owner of Peche Restaurant in Morrow, agrees with the new rules, but has some reservations. "I'm for it," Mbaye says. "[But] some of it, I think, they're just overdoing it, and it's not always feasible. It depends on what you're doing. When you are cooking in a hot professional kitchen, those gloves are dangerous."

He says his restaurant has used tongs for food preparations. But he says he believes some sit-in restaurants could have a hard time managing with the 'no bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods' rule.

The inspection scoring sheet will include whether restaurants are adhering to the new rule. It also includes several changes in risk factors, like personal hygiene and food temperatures. It includes 27 risk factors compared to 13 before.

For frequent diners, like Damon Perkins, the new regulations are a welcome change. Perkins, a Peachtree City resident, says is glad to see more stringent food safety regulations. While the new regulations may be tougher for restaurants, he says, they are good for the wellbeing and safety of diners. Perkins says he pays close attention to restaurant-inspection scores, and is especially concerned about cleanliness.

"First thing is reputation, though," he says. "I go to restaurants with good reputations."