Restaurants Repeatedly Flunk With Little Penalty
When you go out to eat, you want to get fed -- not get sick.
That's why state health inspectors are in restaurants every day, checking to make sure they are clean.
But a NewsChannel 5 investigation found some of the Midstate's dirtiest restaurants get written up over and over.
And consumer investigator Jennifer Kraus discovered no one seems to do much about those repeat offenders.
But Hugh Atkins with the state Health Department says, "We don't allow an unsafe restaurant to remain open."
And Atkins insists that if a restaurant is open, it's safe.
Still, our investigation took us to the Jade Dragon in Clarksville. It's one of the worst offenders around when it comes to dirty kitchens. In fact, in the last two years, the Jade Dragon has repeatedly failed its surprise inspections, getting scores as low as a 58, 52, even a 47.
The manager told us, "Everything's clean."
But despite what he told us, when he took us back into the kitchen, we saw what appeared to be many of the same violations the restaurant has been repeatedly cited for before.
The outside thermometer on the walk-in cooler wasn't working.
And inside the cooler, we found what longtime Metro health inspector Jerry Rowland said were serious problems that could make customers sick. Among them: trays of uncovered food, an open bucket of sweet and sour sauce sitting on the floor, and raw meat that was sitting in the same bin as uncooked vegetables.
Rowland told NewsChannel 5, these were health code violations, some of them even critical violations.
A leaky cooling unit that we saw dripping right down onto uncovered broccoli is what alarmed him the most.
Rowland says, "You never want a food stored under a condensation drain. Never."
But the restaurant remains open for business, though it has been shut down for these same sorts of health code violations in the past.
Hugh Atkins heads up the state's restaurant inspection program and says, "If we go back after that ten days and they have corrected all of the critical items that we have pointed out to them, there's no reason to take any further action because at that point, they're in compliance."
But our investigation found those same critical problems often show up again and again when inspectors come back.
And we discovered, this seems to happen at other problem restaurants too. In fact, it happens so often, health inspectors even have a name for it.
"See-saw -- the see-saw effect as we call it," Rowland says.
At the Jade Dragon in Clarksville, as we continued to point out what seemed to be violations to the manager, he asked, "Can we get everything stopped?" referring to our camera. He added, "I don't want to be on TV at all."
But Atkins says there is no problem, telling NewsChannel 5, "I am very confident in the program."
Kraus asks Atkins, "Some of these restaurants you cite and you cite and you cite and you shut down repeatedly and they don't seem to get any better."
Atkins response: "They are better when they are allowed to open back up or they would not be allowed to reopen."
He says problem restaurants like the Jade Dragon are supposed to get special attention from inspectors and guidance on how to improve.
He adds, "Those are the ones we focus on with more frequent inspections."
But our investigation found inspectors have not made additional visits to the Jade Dragon in years despite its ongoing problems.
Ronnie Hart with the Tennessee Restaurant Association says, "The bottom line is fix the problem. You can't put a band-aid on it. Fix the problem."
Hart says his group has little patient for repeat offenders and is now pushing for mandatory food safety training.
The state now can only ask restaurant workers to attend these free classes, but Hart says requiring such classes might make a difference.
Hart tells NewsChannel 5, "Maybe it gives them a better understanding about a lot of this and maybe more than a better understanding, more knowledge of the importance of doing these things and doing them right."
And, maybe, he says then more restaurants would do things the way the Sunset Grill does and would have the inspection scores to prove it.
If inspectors find a restaurant is so dirty it's unsafe or if a restaurant repeatedly fails to fix critical problems, the state can shut it down.
But our investigation found if a restaurant is shut down, it's usually not closed for very long.
In the last year, state inspectors have shut down 42 restaurants across the state.
But, of those 42, all but four reopened for business the very next day.
Wednesday night at six, we'll look at those inspection scores you see in restaurants and find out why they don't always tell the full story about a restaurant.