PEKIN — A year ago, the Tazewell County Health Department dropped the 100-point scoring system that had been used for more than 30 years in restaurant inspections.
Under the new system, restaurants are rated by risk factor violations that could lead to food-borne illnesses. The new system is part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s food code. The code establishes practical, science-based guidance for mitigating risk factors that are known to cause or contribute to food-borne illness outbreaks associated with retail and food service facilities.
“This food code requires things to be changed,” said Sarah Malik, an environmental health specialist with the Tazewell County Health Department. “It’s science-based, so there’s a lot of research that went into these things that could possibly lead to a food-borne illness.”
The new food code requires that restaurants have an employee illness policy stating the circumstances under which employees can work and what symptoms must be reported to management. Restaurants must also have cleanup plans to address episodes of vomiting or diarrhea within their establishment, as well as signage at all hand sinks reminding employees to wash their hands.
“The biggest violation we saw in our first year was, facilities didn’t have adequate hand-washing sinks properly supplied,” said Malik. “That was due to the requirement to have hand washing signage. It was easily corrected by giving them the signs during the inspection. The next one was the employee illness policy and facilities not having that policy for employees to know what symptoms and illnesses they needed to report and when they could or could not come to work. The third most common one was food contact surfaces not being cleaned or sanitized.”
Under the 100-point scoring system, Malik said, restaurant inspectors interacted primarily with owners or managers during their visits. The new system encourages more communication between Health Department inspectors and restaurant employees for the purpose of on-the-job training.
“With the new system, I like the fact that they ask the workers what temperature they’re cooking a particular item,” said Jim Kouri, owner of Kouri’s Pub. “They’re helping the worker understand the concept of the cooking end of it. Most of the time, they cook to look because they do it so much. In this case, (the inspectors) are actually teaching them protocol. I think they are teaching them proper food safety.”
In the second year of new inspection guidelines, Malik believes the transition has gone smoothly, but adjusting to a new set of rules has presented a challenge for restaurant owners, managers and employees.
“The hardest thing is getting the public and the facilities to understand the new scoring system,” she said.
As a restaurateur for 24 years and as the son of former restaurant owners, Kouri had a lifelong familiarity with the 100-point system. He believes the previous system gave restaurant owners a more definitive idea of where they were in terms of cleanliness and is somewhat uncomfortable with the paradigm shift that always comes with change.
“I’ve been in this business a long time, and it’s hard for me to change my thought process,” he said. “We’ve only been graded one time under the new system, and we passed. We had a few minor violations. It was almost like the grading was the same and they’re using different terminology.”
Because Sangalli’s Italian Steakhouse opened last year, after Illinois adopted the FDA’s new restaurant inspection rules, owner Dave Sangalli didn't get accustomed to the old system.
“I opened up right when they changed it from the numbering system,” Sangalli said. “As a citizen, I used to read them, and I would look at a score and I’d think, ‘Oh, they got a 72. They’re not doing very well.’ But when you look in there and see what they scored the people on, some of the stuff that would downgrade were very minor items. If you don’t read deep enough, you’ll look at the score only and you think that makes it a bad place. It really wasn’t true. The scoring was good in some aspects, and it was bad in others. You might have something wrong with your front door, and they’d take points off, and that could lower your score on something that had nothing to do with food service issues.”
Sangalli added that he appreciates the fact that, under the new pass/fail scoring system, inspectors give restaurant staff opportunities to correct violations on the spot.
“They allow you to take care of it right then, while they’re standing there,” he said. “Some of (the violations) are very minor and very easy fixes.”
Sangalli’s has been inspected three times and passed every time.
“We’ve done better every time they’ve been in here,” he said. “We’ve never had the same issue twice. It’s been little things that they hit us on. They give you a score, but they don’t make it public. I believe we were in the 90s. They were in here right at lunchtime and hit us on one item. We were about two degrees off on a cooler, and all it took was an adjustment on a knob. I’m happy that the Health Department goes around and does this. I am probably more partial to the new system than I was to the old. I think they’re doing better and better at trying to make food safety their No. 1 issue. I like the fact that they’re unannounced when they walk into a restaurant. They just walk in and say, ‘Hey, it’s your turn.’”