Restaurant Report Cards: Can You Trust The Inspection Score? -

Restaurant Report Cards: Can You Trust The Inspection Score?

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Can You Trust The Inspection Score? Can You Trust The Inspection Score?

The letter grades are posted right on the front door of every restaurant in South Carolina.  In nearly every case, it's an "A". 

The grades are the result of surprise inspections by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.  They're looking for unsafe food and unsanitary conditions.  The inspections are supposed to keep you safe.

7 On Your Side analyzed tens of thousands of those inspections, combing through every report in Greenville, Spartanburg and Anderson Counties in 2011 and 2012.

The investigation showed some places earn "A"s with what the state calls "Critical Risk" factors, including potentially unsafe food.

Chef Fritz Manigault, the owner of La Vielle Maison in Greenville, said consumers should be careful to do their own homework on a restaurant.

"There are a lot of restaurants out here and they will boast they have no issues.  Well that's a lie. All restaurants have issues," Manigault said.

His restaurant got an unusually low grade in April of 2012.  His score of "62" was the lowest for any other restaurants studied that year.  It crippled his business. 

Since that inspection, he's worked hard to improve and has earned an "A".  Still, his critique would sound like sour grapes if it wasn't echoed by restaurant owners who have consistently had high scores.

Jimmy Chulkas has owned the Clock Restaurant in Greer since 1993. They've had 5 surprise inspections in the last 2 year and never scored lower than a 96 out of 100.

Community Watchdog Gordon Dill asked Chulkas, "Do you trust the "A" if you see an a on the door?  Do you always know that means clean?"

"Yeah, but you also have to look for yourself. At least, I do," Chulkas said.

Restaurants are graded on a 100 point scale and start with a perfect score.  Points are subtracted for each violation.  A restaurant loses 5 points for "potentially hazardous food" and 1 point for improper ventilation.  That means it's possible for the state to discover unsafe food and still give an "A" grade.

In the two years studied by 7 On Your Side, more than 98% of all inspections resulted in an "A

Jim Beasley, a spokesman for D-HEC said, "We are not really in the business of shutting them down. We're in the business of preventing health hazards."

The 7 On Your Side analysis showed many "A" scores hide those "critical" violations.  In some cases, they're apparently corrected with incredible speed.

Anderson's "Papas and Beer" got a "62" on November 1st of 2011.  The inspector found "potentially hazardous food", "cross contamination" and improper hygiene.  That included the inspectors note that chicken had not been cooked to a safe temperature.

The inspector's report ends that day at 10:25am.  Then, 7 On Your Side discovered what appeared to be a second inspection that gave the same restaurant a perfect 100.  That inspection report notes that it began at 10:25a.m. on that same day.  It's exactly the minute the first, highly critical, report finished.

Beasley said that was simply a data entry fluke due to the way the inspector entered the scores.

Gordon asked, "Is there any way for someone who ate at this restaurant on November 1st  2011 to know that they were eating potentially hazardous food?"

"At the time of the initial inspection there should have been a change in grade. However, we would also, at that time, schedule a re-inspection so we can go back and insure the following inspection reflects they are now handling food correctly," Beasley said.

In other cases, 7 On Your Side found evidence of serious issues that appear to continue through inspection after inspection while the restaurant keeps scoring high marks.

A restaurant in Greenville County was called "Supreme Chicken" in July of 2011 when inspectors found the "presence of roaches".  Another inspection three weeks later found the same thing.  The next year, in March and September, the same restaurant was called "El Ranchito" when investigators gave it a "A" rating after finding and photographing "presence of roaches."

According to the state inspection checklist, "presence of roaches" is a "critical violation".

"If we find a situation where they do have insects rodents that type of thing we do consider that to be an educational opportunity," Beasley said.

Gordon asked, "Do you think customers should know if three straight inspections revealed roaches in the kitchen of a restaurant?"

Beasley answered, "I would want to know. Yes."

Beasley said his check of state records did not reveal any time in the last several years in which an Upstate restaurant was forced to close due to repeated violations.

"Just, basically, know your restaurant. Know the restaurant you're going to eat at," said Manigault.

After pressing the state for solutions, Beasley said D-HEC is working to improve its website so that diners can access more information about the places they eat.

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