Does a score of 90 in a restaurant inspection mean that establishment is near perfect or a serious health threat?
It could mean either one.
The score alone gives little indication how good or how bad the health standards in restaurant kitchens are, said Daren Winkelman, director of the Carson City Health Department.
"You can have a 95 and we could be closing you down for a major violation," Winkelman said. "When you see a score of 90, it may not be all that bad or it may be very bad."
Winkelman actually wanted to do away with the scoring system and letter-grade certificates a few years ago, but he said restaurateurs insisted on keeping the number scores.
Scores don't matter much, though, said Christie Smith, one of three inspectors who visits anywhere from 10 to 15 restaurants a week.
"The score can be very misleading either way," Smith said. "You have to look at the violations."
The real story is in the descriptive detail spelling out the violations. Winkelman and Smith said faithful readers of restaurant inspections should zero in on temperature and personal hygiene violations.
These bring with them five demerits. The five-point violations are:
- Temperature of food during storage and preparation falls between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature range for bacteria growth.
- Kitchen staff don't follow good hygienic practices such as washing hands.
- Spoiled food.
- Toxic items not properly stored.
- Unsafe water source.
- Cross connections of plumbing.
"Hand washing, that's a big one for us," Smith said. "If you're not careful, you can cross-contaminate food."
Violations vary in severity of demerits of 1, 2, 4 and 5 points. There is no 3-point violation, thus offering a distinct difference between major and minor violations.
Four demerits are given for sanitization rinse problems, cross- contamination of food, when hand sinks for staff use are blocked off, and the presence of insects, rodents and other animals.
One-point violations address walls, floors, lighting, ventilation, outside garbage storage and minor problems with utensils.
Ten one-point violations, conceivably, could be less severe than two 5-point violations, even though both add up to a score of 90.
"We look at what causes food-borne illnesses," Winkelman said. "Dirt in the corner probably won't cause food-borne illnesses. If walls, floors and ceilings are dirty, we give them a written note, 'Hey, you need to clean your floors.' It's such a small item. It's certainly not something we'd close a restaurant for."
Readers of the health inspections in the Nevada Appeal should pay particular attention to the 5-point temperature violations. Joan MacDougal of Jacks Valley reads health inspections just like the Carson City Health Department wants people to.
MacDougal last week moved a High Sierra Lincoln Club meeting from a restaurant because it scored an 85 because of hand washing violations and unclean food contact surfaces.
"It depends to me what the infraction is," said MacDougal, the club's president. "A little dust on the wall doesn't bother me. Not washing hands, that turns me totally off."
The Carson City Health Department follows the temperature violation guidelines of the state Bureau of Health Protection Services, which does restaurant inspections in cities and counties without their own health departments. The state gives only one 5-point demerit for temperature violations, no matter if one, two, three or more violations are found.
"That's our policy," the bureau's Jim Hogan said. "If the temperature is out of the safe range, it's a serious problem. But to debit more for every temperature violation would be unfair."
Winkelman and Smith said published health inspections can lead to minor hysteria when people simply look at scores or don't have a full understanding of the violations.
"The biggest concern we get is people saying 'We can't eat at this place because it got a 90,'" Winkelman said.
Smith added that published scores lower than 95 trigger calls from diners who, based on reading the inspections, may avoid restaurants.
"A lot of times when people go to restaurants with a 90, they'll call and add other things they saw," Smith said. "A lot of times they are not justified or legitimate."