But when a Fulton County woman died last month after eating bacteria-contaminated oysters at a restaurant in Hapeville, it was a reminder that proper food handling can mean the difference between life and death.
For several years, the Georgia Division of Public Health has been working to revise its food service rules. After a few last-minute changes, the final version of the regulations should be published soon, and local health departments are supposed to begin enforcement on Dec. 1.
The rules apply not just to restaurants but to any facility that serves food to the public, including schools, hospitals, movie theaters, employee cafeterias, and caterers.
"The new rules go into much more detail than the previous regulations, which date back to 1996," said Jeff Gary, state director of environmental health. "These are based on national standards and mirror the Food and Drug Administration's model food-service codes."
The basic food-handling techniques will not change, Gary said. What's different is that when restaurants are evaluated, they will be much more heavily penalized for things that could directly cause food-borne illness.
Those violations fall into five categories identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: employee hygiene (such as hand-washing); protecting food from contamination; cooking food at proper temperature; holding foods (cold or hot) at the right temperature; and using food only from approved sources.
"These are things we have always looked at, but there's more emphasis on them now," said Laurie Wentworth, an inspector with the Hall County Environmental Health Department.
Michael Hunt, chef and owner of Rudolph's restaurant in Gainesville, thinks the new scoring method will be more fair than the current one.
"Most of the stuff I get deducted for is all structural, because we're in an older building," he said. "So I'm in favor of a system that puts more emphasis on actual food violations."
Inspectors in all of Georgia's 159 counties will begin using the same inspection form, so consumers can feel reassured that all restaurants are being judged by the same criteria.
"Previously the form was not standardized, so some counties took liberties with it," said Gary. "We'd notice that certain counties seemed to have an awfully high number of 100 (perfect) scores."
Under the new system, each establishment starts off with 100 points and gets deductions for violations. The five risk factors listed by the CDC each get a nine-point deduction, while other categories warrant deductions of one to four points.
Another change is that inspectors can deduct an extra two points for a repeat violation.
"We want people to learn from their mistakes," said Gary. "If they keep doing the same thing over and over, obviously they're not trying to comply."
The grading system will also be different. Currently, a score of 85 or higher is considered passing. The new method will resemble grades in school. An "A" is 90-100; "B" is 80-89; and C is 70-79.
A score of 69 or below merits a "U" for unsatisfactory, and the restaurant must fix the violations and undergo re-inspection.
"The system will reward restaurants that have consistently good scores. They won't have to be inspected as often," said Wentworth. "That gives us more time to visit the places that are having problems."
Managers must be trained in food safety
Ideally, every food-service facility gets inspected at least twice a year.
"We see inspection as a partnership (with the restaurateurs)," Wentworth said. "We're not here to bust you. We're here to help. If a customer gets sick from eating your food, it's going to hurt your business. There will be bad publicity, and possibly legal costs."
But while restaurants benefit from the inspection process, there's no question that the new rules will place additional demands on their employees.
For the first time, every establishment must have at least one staff member who is a certified food safety manager (CFSM). That person's job is to make sure all the other employees are following the regulations.
"We're really recommending that a couple of people be trained. Somebody has to be in charge when the CFSM is not there," said Wentworth.
And the person in charge will have to prove that they know what they're doing.
"The state has a list of questions that we ask the person in charge, things that you wouldn't know the answers to if you haven't taken a food-safety class," said Wentworth. "That person has to demonstrate their knowledge about food-borne illness, or we can deduct up to four points."
There are a number of ways managers can get certified. Classes, with fees ranging from $50 to $300, are offered by restaurant chains, industry associations, private companies and local health departments.
Hall County Environmental Health is conducting a "ServSafe" class Monday and Tuesday, at a cost of $100. Wentworth said most of that fee is used to pay for the thick regulation manual that each participant receives.
In addition to occasional two-day ServSafe classes, the Hall agency offers a basic, four-hour food safety course for all employees. Classes are held in English once a month and in Spanish every two months. They're free for newly opened restaurants, $20 per person for existing facilities.
Wentworth said it's still a struggle to get restaurants to send employees to classes, since the industry's high turnover rate makes education seem like a poor investment.
"At some places, there's a different manager every time you walk in the door," she said.
But Gary said the education is not wasted. "People do tend to move around from job to job, but they stay within the industry," he said. "If they go to another restaurant, they take that training with them."
Hunt said he will go through the certification process himself, but he doesn't plan to send many workers to food-safety classes.
"A lot of employees don't choose to be in this business, and they're not committed to it as a career," he said. "It doesn't make economic sense to pay to send employees to classes if they're not going to be with you for very long."
Hunt said managers spend a lot of their time "baby-sitting" to make sure employees are adhering to the regulations.
"We try to explain the reasons for the rules," he said. "If employees understand why they're doing it, they're more likely to keep doing it even when you're not around."
Unlike the rest of the new regulations, the training requirement will have a two-year grace period.
"The state is allowing a phase-in for certification, because there aren't enough classes to train everybody at once," said Wentworth. "So we're not going to come into your restaurant on Dec. 1 and beat you up for not knowing something. But we want people to start thinking in this manner now, and not have everybody wait two years to sign up for a class."
New rules mean more paperwork
Restaurants that fail to educate their employees may have difficulty passing inspection, because they won't have the knowledge to comply with the new rules.
"A lot of their job is going to be record-keeping now," said Wentworth. "They have to be able to show us what they've been doing."
For example, there's a new category called "time as a public health control." That means ready-to-serve foods can be kept on display at room temperature for up to four hours, but only if an employee is keeping track of how long the item has been out.
Also, items that are prepared in-house and stored to sell later must be marked with a sticker indicating what the food is and when it was made.
"Items that are commercially purchased and brought in already have a label and an expiration date," said Wentworth. "But when we do inspections, we often find things such as salads that were made in-house, and we have no way of knowing if it was made yesterday or three weeks ago."
The rules also get tougher on hand-washing requirements, prohibiting long fingernails and bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.
"I get a lot of complaints from people saying the person who prepared their food didn't wear gloves," said Wentworth. "There was nothing we could do about it because gloves were optional. Now they'll be mandatory."
She added that inspectors are going to get serious about the use of food thermometers. Employees must monitor temperatures frequently at all stages of food preparation and storage: cooking, cooling, refrigerating and freezing.
"If a restaurant can't keep food at a safe temperature, they may have to change the way they do things," said Wentworth. "If they don't have the space to cool large amounts of food all at once, maybe they need to rethink their menu."
Wentworth acknowledges that complying with the rules could be costly for some. "We have had some restaurants here that just decided to close because they couldn't afford to fix their equipment," she said.
However, Gary doesn't think the new regulations will be overly burdensome.
"We did not negotiate with the restaurant industry, but we allowed them to be part of the process as we were drafting the rules," he said. "Our intent is not to give anyone a hard time; it's to protect the public. And incidentally, it could also protect a restaurant from being sued (by a customer who becomes ill)."
Wentworth said many people still think the rules are arbitrary or excessively cautious.
"They say, 'I've been making food that way at home for years and I've never gotten sick,'" she said. "And the things you do at home may be safe if your family is relatively healthy. But a restaurant has to serve everyone who walks in the door: the pre-school children, the elderly, the person who has a compromised immune system because they're undergoing chemotherapy.
"Restaurants have to treat everybody the same and assume that all their customers are vulnerable."