6 News Investigates: Inspecting the restaurant inspectors

6 News Investigates: Inspecting the restaurant inspectors

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We discovered five inspectors, #225, #847, #820, #780, and #775 cover 45 percent of Knox County eateries, but they account for 84 percent of the failures. We discovered five inspectors, #225, #847, #820, #780, and #775 cover 45 percent of Knox County eateries, but they account for 84 percent of the failures.
Inspector #225 is only responsible for 14 percent of the area eateries, but makes up for more than a third of the failing scores. Inspector #225 is only responsible for 14 percent of the area eateries, but makes up for more than a third of the failing scores.
"The worst thing any restaurant could ever do is serve something unsafe to the public," explained Tim Joseph, owner of WokChow and secretary of KRA. "The worst thing any restaurant could ever do is serve something unsafe to the public," explained Tim Joseph, owner of WokChow and secretary of KRA.
6 News showed our findings to the Dr. Buchanan and Ronnie Nease, the director of Environmental Health and the person who oversees the inspectors. 6 News showed our findings to the Dr. Buchanan and Ronnie Nease, the director of Environmental Health and the person who oversees the inspectors.

By ALEXIS ZOTOS
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Restaurant inspectors look at everything from food temperatures to ice bin sanitation all in an effort to protect you, the diner. Who is inspecting the inspectors?

A 6 News investigation discovered a problem with inconsistency among Knox County Health Department inspectors, finding some were failing restaurants much more frequently than others.

Each week in "Food for Thought," 6 News reports the highest and the lowest health scores, but members of the Knoxville Restaurant Association noticed a pattern in the restaurants receiving low score.

"The worst thing any restaurant could ever do is serve something unsafe to the public," explained Tim Joseph, owner of WokChow and secretary of KRA.

Joseph and other restaurant owners believe their health scores may depend less on what's going on in the kitchen and more on who's inspecting it.

"The inspectors all grade different things. There's one inspector that's going to always look for a dripping pipe. We have another inspector that will never look for that," said David Kiger, owner of The Orangery and president of KRA.

To find out if this is true, 6 News producer Ryan Webb and reporter Alexis Zotos spent days poring over every restaurant inspection from the last year, a total of 4,437 reports.

What we found was out of 13 inspectors, one of them accounted for 38 percent of all restaurant failures.

Inspector #225 is only responsible for 14 percent of the area eateries, but makes up for more than a third of the failing scores.

On the other hand, three inspectors didn't fail anybody in all of 2013.

Every kitchen in the county is inspected by the health department, including restaurants, bars, concession stands and mobile food trucks. Inspectors are required to conduct a complete inspection twice a year. If a critical violation is discovered, the inspector is required to do a follow up inspection in 10 to 15 days. More inspections are conducted if there are customer complaints.

We calculated our data on the complete inspections. The 13 inspectors are assigned a geographical area and rotate on a yearly basis.


Full list of complete restaurant inspections for 2013


We discovered five inspectors, #225, #847, #820, #780, and #775 cover 45 percent of Knox County eateries, but they account for 84 percent of the failures. On the flip side, the other eight inspectors cover 55 percent of the inspections, but only account for 16 percent of the failures.

It's a frustrating discovery for restaurant owners.

"What we want is a level playing field for everybody. We want all the inspectors to grade the scores the same," said Joseph.

We consider a health score of 70 or below a failure. Restaurants begin at 100 and then points are deducted based on the number of violations. Non-critical violations, like storage of utensils or properly labeled food, range between one to two points. Critical violations, like food temperature and hand washing, are worth four or five points. It is possible to fail an inspection with no critical violations, but we found that almost never happens.

In our research, we also found a discrepancy with critical violations. Inspector #847 finds a critical violation 75 percent of the time, compared to Inspector #615 who only finds critical violations 33 percent of the time.

"What we're finding is these tests aren't being graded the same. Not even similarly," said Joseph.


Restaurant inspector analysis


The restaurant owners that brought the problem to our attention, David Kiger of The Orangery and Tim Joseph of WokChow, have had failing scores in the past.

The last three complete inspections at The Orangery were a 72, 68 and 78. WokChow's last follow up inspection was a 90 but their last complete inspections had scores of 80, 73 and 64.

They're both assigned Inspector #225.

In our investigation, we found The Orangery failed in years past under other inspectors as well.

"If there's a critical item that should be fixed, we all make mistakes, we all get caught during a busy time," explained Kiger.

Joseph said this isn't about restaurants looking for an easier inspection.

"It's not about restaurants trying to get free points or points back. If food is out of temperature absolutely, that's a safety issue with that food. [It] should be discarded, and frankly, should be monitored better. But what we're finding is there are a lot of restaurants being deducted for things that are very vague," Joseph explained.

Each inspector is armed with the same 44 point checklist, but the Knox County Health Department admits there is sometimes a variation in how those violations are interpreted.

"There are some differences that can occur when you add the human element to regulation," explained Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of Knox County Health Department. 

6 News showed our findings to the Dr. Buchanan and Ronnie Nease, the director of Environmental Health and the person who oversees the inspectors.

"We strive, as Dr. Buchanan said, to keep it as consistent as we can, they meet on a monthly basis with a food supervisor to ask any questions they may have or issues that have been raised," explained Nease.

The restaurant owners' concerns are now going beyond Knox County. State Senator Becky Duncan Massey filed a bill that would help restaurants appeal to the health department. It would allow them to correct non critical violations on the spot without being marked off.

"I understand sometimes things like that can be subjective and you know, you want it as objective as possible. You want it to be as black and white as you can when your score is your livelihood and you're dependent on that," explained Sen. Duncan Massey.

The Knox County Health Department says they're aware of the concerns over inconsistency.

"There is always that interpretation that is going to occur, and what we can do is put as much effort into standardization and keep doing it, and going back and speaking to those folks that are outside either way. To talk to them and work with them to shorten that spread between scores," explained Dr. Buchanan.

They've taken steps to make changes, including having a supervisor follow up on inspections that appear to have inconsistent scores.

"It is a challenge, but we strive to do that on a consistent basis," explained Nease.

"You have to remember again, this is just a moment in time when [inspectors are] there. So sometimes things are fine one minute but when the inspectors there, they're not. There is some variation and we expect some variation," said Dr. Buchanan.

In the end, the goal of the inspectors and the checklist is to keep the public safe.

"We know food temperatures, proper sanitation of equipment and personal hygiene are the three major causes of food borne illness," explained Nease.

We asked the restaurants if it is their responsibility to ensure those safety measures aren't violated.

"Some of them are probably our fault. Some of them are probably misconstrued, for lack of a better word, but there's no question some are our fault," said Kiger.

We learned these inconsistency concerns are not just subject to Knox County.

"It's an issue across the state and across the nation of consistency and inspections," said Dr. Buchanan.

According to president of the Tennessee Hospitality Association Greg Adkins, they're meeting with the Tennessee Department of Health on Friday to discuss inconsistency in health inspection scores.

"There's always going to be human error but our main goal is education and communication. Sometimes it's just something the inspector doesn't see," Adkins said in an interview over the phone.

The Tennessee Hospitality Association hopes some of their concerns over inspector inconsistency can be addressed in the new food code bill that goes into effect in 2015.

For now, Kiger and the other Knoxville Restaurant Association owners hope the awareness means fairer scores in the future.

"We're not trying to get at any one inspector, we're really not, we want it to be level playing field across the board," said Kiger. "Because it does it really affects the restaurants, the restaurants take this very seriously, we just want to make sure what they're judging us on is consistent basis."

6 News Producer RYAN WEBB contributed to this report.

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