A new system of restaurant inspections focusing on proper food handling and preparation gets under way in Anne Arundel this week.
On Thursday and Friday, food-control experts from the state Department ofHealth and Mental Hygiene are scheduled to start teaching the county's eight food inspectors how to perform the new inspections, which emphasize food handling rather than the condition of the building.
Until now, the physical condition of the restaurant and kitchen counted for the same number of points in inspections as actual food handling --refrigeration, food cleaning and storage.
Under the new regulations, published in the Maryland Register and expected to be approved this summer, food handling will be the main factor in an inspector's decision to suspend an establishment's license. The idea is that food-borne illnesses almost always occur due to faulty food handling; therefore, food handling should be the main criteria in inspections.
"It's a difference in philosophy," said Evelyn Stein, spokeswoman for the county health department. "How much should a dirty floor count? Generally speaking, people do not prepare food on the floor.
"But if your counters are ill-kept or food is left sitting on the counter for hours, that is more significant than not having your walls painted recently."
Jeanette Lyon, a food-rating officer with the state health department, said most people believe the addition of chemicals constitutes the major threat to their food. "But the field recognizes that bacteria is the leading cause of illness," she said.
In 1987, she said, researchers estimated there were 33 million cases of illness from bacteria-contaminated food nationwide.
The biggest problem in restaurants is inadequate cooling of food, she said. Food cools very slowly, and bacteria will grow without rapid refrigeration.
The new regulations, which will be used in all Maryland counties, identify nine critical food-handling criteria, including temperature control. If a restaurant fails to meet just one of the standards and if the problem cannot be corrected before the inspector leaves, the restaurant's license may be suspended.
"If we feel (the violation) is significant enough, we can close them immediately," Lyon said.
Restaurants will have up to 30 days to correct structural deficiencies, such as poor lighting or rusty pipes, and may work out a schedule to comply with bigger structural problems. But preparation problems must be handled immediately.
Maryland's restaurant inspection process -- which also applies to bars, groceries, seasonal markets and other establishments with retail food -- has not been reformed since 1976, Lyon said.
Since then, inspectors have rated establishments on a 100-point system, with 70 a passing score. Restaurants missing the passing grade often could raise their score to 70 by making corrections before the inspector's departure, Stein said.
But these last-minute corrections usually were structural and had nothing to do withfood preparation, Stein said.
Anne Arundel, which monitors 1,200 restaurants and other food establishments, "is a little late getting started" with the new inspection program, Lyon said. After two years of preparation, Baltimore County is using the new system and Prince George's County is ready to start.
Before regular inspections can begin, Anne Arundel inspectors must conduct a complete assessment of each facility's food-handling procedures -- a process that could take up to two years just for full-scale restaurants, Lyon said.
The county's first assessment will be done Thursday and Friday, when state officials begin training local inspectors, Stein said.
Inspectors will first assess "high-priority" establishments -- full-scale restaurants that handle food from the time it is delivered fresh to the time it is served. Fast-food restaurants, bars, groceries and other establishments that do less handling of fresh food will be evaluated later.
The new system is not expected to require more inspectors, Lyonsaid.
Laura Dyas, manager of the Bolongo Bay restaurant in Severna Park, said she expects restaurateurs to welcome the changes.
"This sounds like a better way of doing it to me," she said. "A county health inspector was here today, and he asked me questions about how we stored meat . . . That's what they should be concerned with, not what the bathrooms look like.
"The things people got points off for (under the old system) might have nothing to do with the quality of the food or the cleanliness of the kitchen."