Georgians no longer have to rely on old adages about eating only in restaurants with tablecloths or where the truckers go in order to pick a place where the food is prepared safely.
New procedures in how the state enforces restaurant inspections mean consumers can see at the drive-thru window or front door a simple letter grade and color code before they glance at the menu.
Workers at Checkers in Thomson prepare food. On it's most recent inspection, the drive through scored a 98. Later this year, the state will switch to letter grades for restaurants.
Photo by Erica Green
A green "A" shows the kitchen has met all the requirements for safe food handling while a red "U" may prompt diners to consider a second restaurant option.
The changes are revisions to Georgia's inspections so they mesh with changes in the federal guidelines enacted in the 10 years since the state law was last updated. Food-safety research has advanced significantly in the last decade, experts say, and the new rules will prompt restaurant owners to stay up-to-date.
"Having to post that on the door certainly provides an incentive to restaurant owners," said Mike Mullet, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Human Resource's Division of Public Health.
"It's not really our job to tell people where to eat or not to eat," he said.
It is the agency's job to tell county health departments how to conduct inspections and how to uniformly grade what they find.
Traditionally, inspectors checked off violations on a work sheet and assigned a number grade, 100 percent for no violations, and lower grades based on the number of deductions.
The current system didn't distinguish between a minor error in food safety and one serious enough to pose an immediate health risk. The new grading system packs a bigger wallop for more serious infractions to critical procedures.
"The grading system is going to be a tougher system," said Tim Mosley, inspector for the McDuffie County Health Department. "...It's my understanding there will still be an inspection sheet like we do now, and the violations on the sheet will be very similar as far as how we mark it. But the grade - the A, B, C or the U - will go on the front door."
Restaurants with three critical citations must post a red U until re-inspected.
And then, even if they pass, they'll have to display a yellow C for the next two months and pass another follow-up inspection.
According to Mr. Mosley, the new rules also say restaurants that consistently pass with an A will be given longer between inspection times.
The stricter grading comes as people are eating more of their meals outside the home, notes Joe Frank, professor of food science at the University of Georgia.
"Food-borne illness has been with us ever since we've been eating," he said. "What's different now is that modernization has put us in a situation where a single error could make so many more people ill."
Georgia's new rules require that every restaurant have someone on staff with specialized training in proper food handling who will be responsible for training the rest of the staff. That on-staff specialist will also be tasked with staying informed on new procedures as science develops.
Mr. Mosley said he will attend a training on the new system at the end of March. The new rules were passed last month and will take effect in mid-October.