On the surface, the state's 6-month-old restaurant inspection program looks like a breeze.
After all, it's a test that restaurants rarely -- actually, just about never -- fail.
And thanks to state budget cuts, it's a test -- in Carroll at least -- that may become less and less likely to be given at all.
Begun in March after years of study by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point FoodEvaluation Process is considered by restaurateurs to be one of the nation's most ambitious food safety programs.
But it differs in many ways with the food inspection process used here since the mid-1970s: The emphasis is on how food is prepared, with lessened attention tocracks in the wall or dust on the floor and, perhaps most significant to the restaurant-going public, the elimination of the familiar 100-point scale.
"This puts more of the emphasis on the food, on whatcan actually be harmful to people," said Richard Isaac, director forenvironmental health of the Carroll County Health Department. "It's really a shift of philosophy. Our goal is to reduce the number of food-disease outbreaks."
The new system no longer assigns a score to restaurants, cafeterias, school lunchrooms, college commissaries, convenience stores and grocery store salad bars. Instead, a several-hourinitial test of food preparation is conducted, marking an establishment's success in several "critical areas."
"Nationally, throughoutpublic health circles, this is the currently accepted approach to food handling," said Bob E. Harrington, assistant director of technicalservices for the 100,000-member National Restaurant Association. "I don't know of any other state that has successfully done what Maryland is trying to do."
Under the old point system, a restaurant or other food-service establishment would be assessed a score for a spate of criteria, including food protection, garbage and refuse disposal, lighting, sewage and food storage. A 70 was passing on the initial score; an 85 was needed on the final score after minor corrections weremade by the eatery. Anything below those scores would force either aclosing of the restaurant or a correction of the problem and often resulted in a stepped-up inspection schedule.
Tiffany Crone, director of community hygiene for the Health Department, said that in the last five years, only the House of Pasta in Manchester was closed as aresult of a follow-up inspection. And that closure lasted only several hours. Many were placed on stepped-up inspections after receiving a failing initial grade.
"Anyone can fail, but the inspection is designed to correct critical problems on the spot," she said, adding that inspectors don't leave until problems are rectified.
The county's 423 food establishments are, by law, supposed to be inspected every six months. However, the Health Department regularly found itself short-staffed and behind in inspections.
Under the new system, therestaurants are divided into three priority areas: high priority establishments (places with fresh food, such as sit-down restaurants andgroceries), which are supposed to be tested three times in the firstyear of the program; medium-priority (fast-food eateries), twice a year; and low priority (convenience stores), at least once a year.
To restaurateurs, the new inspection program makes more sense than the old-point system.
"The concept is very good," said Larry Wilhelm, owner of Friendly Farm in Westminster and two other family-style restaurants in Baltimore and Harford counties as well as a former president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "It concentrates on what I think inspections should be concentrated on. The old system wasMickey Mouse."
He and the state restaurant association said that while the new tests are an improvement, they should not be the basis of food regulation for several years.
"We had urged the state to use the approach as an educational tool at first," said Marcia Harris,the association's executive vice president. "I don't think the statetook into account the added cost and the added time it takes for inspections."
Friendly Farm recently underwent the sophisticated, four-hour initial test. Included in the battery of inspections was an analysis of food temperatures done by a $4,000 computer, visual evaluation of food preparation methods and a tracing of how raw ingredients end up as complete meals on the dining room table.
Carroll has four food sanitarians who do the inspections. And while they, up until last week, had hoped to do initial tests on the 87 high-priority establishments by next March, budget cuts could mean the firing of two sanitarians.
And that could mean the virtual shutdown of the ambitious new inspection process.
"We'll be lucky to get around to a placeonce a year," said Larry L. Leitch, deputy director of the Health Department.