3 On Your Side Investigates: Raw Deal - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

3 On Your Side Investigates: Raw Deal

Source: WLBT Source: WLBT
JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

A 3 On Your Side investigation found a significant drop in restaurant inspections statewide, and even fewer in the Jackson metro area, due to budget cuts that hit the Mississippi Department of Health earlier this year.

Officials with the department said that's because the number of inspectors has been cut by more than a third to save money. Restaurant owners like Nathan Glenn said they noticed the reduction in inspections back in March.

He said he understands those trips to your favorite restaurant come with an expectation of trust that your food will be prepared safely.

“We’ve been in Jackson 32 years, the family’s been serving, so it’s generation upon generation of understanding [that]," Glenn said. 

MSDH regulates all of these places, from restaurants to gas station delis, school cafeterias, and even catering companies.

State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier said how often they’re inspected depends on their risk level. The higher the level, the greater chance someone could get a foodborne illness.

“The ones that may be a higher risk, a group of people they’re serving like a nursing home or hospital, people who are more likely to have problems if they’re exposed to a bacteria or virus or something like that. Or they may be restaurants that reheat food," Currier said.

Once a year -- or once a month, depending on the risk -- inspectors come  in and check a variety of things: evidence of insects or rodents, whether the freezers and refrigerators are working, and whether employees wash their hands.

Some of these are called critical violations and can be corrected on site. Others aren’t, and if at least one is found at an establishment, that owner gets a C.

What about those that aren't checked at all?

A 3 On Your Side investigation revealed a 38 percent decrease in inspections statewide over the last six months versus last year.

In the metro, that decrease is 48.5 percent.

“We should not be surprised by it, nor do I think we should be overly concerned about it from a public health standpoint," said Mike Cashion, who's worked in the restaurant industry for more than 30 years.

As Executive Director of the state’s Hospitality and Restaurant Association, it’s Cashion's job to make sure Mississippi’s restaurants thrive by helping them promote safe practices.

“It can put a restaurant out of business in a heartbeat. It’s absolutely to their benefit to pay attention," Cashion said. "There’s no greater contract we have between our consumers and our industry than public health, protecting the public health.”

In theory, fewer inspections could mean a greater public health risk if they lead to more critical violations, and more C grades.

Our investigation found the percentage of B’s and C’s statewide actually went down over the last six months compared to 2015, from 18.6 to 17.3 percent. Those findings seem to suggest that those cuts from lawmakers haven't made restaurants any more risky for customers than they were beforehand.

"Well, I hope not. As I said, I don't think six to eight months is enough time to really assess, and we have had some glitches going forward with the new system," Currier said. "But I'm hopeful that we're going to be doing this in a different way that's more efficient, and still follows up on those restaurants that need to be followed up on."

Cashion said he's encouraged by the data.

“Reducing the number of inspections doesn’t change the quality of inspections. It doesn’t change the standards to which the inspections are taking place," Cashion added.

Glenn said restaurant owners can’t rely on those inspections alone to keep them safe, especially since they serve food to the public.

“They’re a governing body to come check you, but you don’t depend on the health department to keep your restaurant clean. It’s a tool that you use," Glenn said.

Currier said the drop in inspections comes because they have fewer inspectors: 25 either retired or were laid off statewide.

Mississippi now has 45 inspectors for its 82 counties, inspectors that are responsible for checking thousands of restaurants. Most of these inspectors work out of the home instead of the office, and that’s a direct result of decreased funding, according to Currier.

“We’re looking at every state-funded position in the central office because we’ve already taken cuts in the field," Currier said. "We’ve turned down the air conditioning on the weekends. I mean, we’ve done all the things you do at home. You know, you look at all of your expenses and you try to make them as efficient as possible and decrease them if you need to.”

Inspectors fall under Environmental Health, a program that’s been impacted considerably in the last year.

A few restaurant owners who declined to come on camera for fear of retaliation from those inspectors tell 3 On Your Side that in previous years, an inspector would evaluate the restaurant and then charge for the permit.

That process was standard procedure until 2016.

Now these owners must pay the fee ahead of time, and once they do, they know the inspection is coming in the next week or so, which gives plenty of time for the food facility to prepare.

MSDH officials acknowledge that, but also point out that subsequent inspections are random, especially if inspectors are responding to a customer complaint about the eatery. Inspectors also check establishments at different times of the day instead of just the lunch hour to ensure more safety, Currier said.

Glenn owns three metro area restaurants -- Rooster's, Basil's and The Feathered Cow -- and said inspections at his establishments are random.

Now he hopes the restaurant community can just do their part and hold the fort down until more funding comes along for the department.

“Their job is to protect the public, right? I would like to see that energy going in there and really working on critical violations, so the health dept. can focus on those restaurants or whomever who has a record of critical violations to help them understand so they don’t make the public sick," Glenn said.

For the month of September, 7 restaurants in the central Mississippi area received C ratings. One of those improved to a B with a subsequent visit. You can view the C rating inspection reports below.

To see how your restaurant performed on its most recent inspection, click here.

The most recent C ratings in Mississippi:

Crystal Springs Middle School 

Tougaloo College

Green Room

Bo Don's Catfish and Seafood

Monsour's at The Biscuit Company

Circle K in Madison

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