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Restaurant Inspection Scores Don't Tell All

Restaurant Inspection Scores Don't Tell All

CREATED Nov 23, 2007

When you go into a restaurant, how often do you look at the inspection score on the wall?

A lot of people like to know how clean a restaurant is before they eat there.

But a NewsChannel 5 investigation found that posted score may not tell you everything you should know. Consumer investigator Jennifer Kraus discovered why.

Restaurant inspection scores may seem like a good way to judge how clean a restaurant is and a good indicator of where to eat and where not to eat.

Joy Miller says she eats out frequently, and if she's going to eat somewhere, the restaurant's scores have "got to be in the 90s."

Madonna Gamble says she too eats out a lot, "I wouldn't want to eat there if it's in the 40s."

Our investigation found the inspection scores you see posted in restaurants don't always tell the whole story because those establishments, we discovered, are only required to post their most recent score.

Here's how that can make a difference: If a restaurant fails an inspection, the state gives it a second chance. The restaurant knows the inspectors are coming back; therefore, they usually will get a higher score. And that's the score that the restaurant gets to leave up for the next six months.

Ronnie Hart, the head of the Tennessee Restaurant Association, says, "We thought that was only fair." Hart goes on to say, "We can have a bad day."

Restaurant owners say the low scores should come down when they correct the problems.

Hart explains it this way, "Because if I fixed them in five minutes, why should that 75 stay on the wall for six months? It's misleading actually."

He also says it punishes restaurants when they get a low score, like the Palm downtown did back in August. The restaurant originally scored a 59, but when inspectors came back again, the restaurant got a 95. The score of 59 it had received earlier was gone, as if it had never happened.

Chris Waldrop with the Consumer Federation of America says, "Consumers need that information, so they can know what's going on in the restaurant."

Consumer groups say totally eliminating the lower score is not fair to customers because often, like we found at the Jade Dragon restaurant in Clarksville, there's a pattern.

The manager of the Jade Dragon showed NewsChannel 5 the posted score of 82 hanging in his restaurant. But, we discovered that was a follow-up score. The original score had been a 58.

Our investigation found that in the last several years in fact, the Jade Dragon has repeatedly failed its surprise inspections getting scores as low as a 47, but every time managers knew the inspectors were coming back to re-inspect, the restaurant's scores went up.

Waldrop says, "If you see a restaurant that's going up and down and up and down in the scores, that indicates the restaurant is probably just doing enough to get by and pass the inspection and then when inspectors are out of the building, they're going back to their old practices."

In fact, when we went to the Jade Dragon, we saw what appeared to be many of the same violations the restaurant has been repeatedly cited for before. That's why consumer groups say simply posting the current score isn't enough. People who say they eat out a lot agree.

Consumer Tim Walter tells NewsChannel 5, "I'd like to see what the last six months look like."

Susan Hyde says, "Post the two most recent (scores) and that way people could have a clearer picture of what they're liable to be experiencing."

But the state says what you see now is what you get.

Hugh Atkins with the Tennessee Department of Health heads up the state's restaurant inspection program and he says, "The law says that no mention of the previous score is to be put on the follow-up inspection score. That's in the state law."

Jerry Rowland, who has been in charge of Metro's inspection program for nearly 30 years, says, "I think customers should know the score."

He also says they should know that a follow-up score is just that. So, when his inspectors re-inspect a restaurant it is made very clear across the front of the posted score. The words "Follow-Up Score Adjusted" are printed in big bold letters on the sheet.

Rowland explains it this way, "We're letting the public know that this is a follow-up score."

But doing that had gotten him in trouble with the state. "It's not what the state Health Department mandates," Hugh Atkins says.

Atkins says if people are really all that concerned about scores, they can check them out for themselves. But, as we found, the state's own web site only lists the most recent scores, which are often that higher second-chance score.

Even then, Atkins says interested consumers "can go down to the local health department or call their local health department and say, 'I want to come by and look at a file.'"

Consumer advocates like Chris Waldrop say that's ridiculous. Waldrop adds, "We're all very busy and consumers don't have time to go down to the public health department, pull out the records and try to look back on the history of this restaurant."

Consumers, like Susan Hyde, say they want this information "just so I could make a more informed decision about where I want to eat." They just don't want to be fed what is, in some cases, a half truth.

While people say they use these scores to determine where to eat, the head of the Tennessee Restaurant Association says those scores are just supposed to be a tool for restaurants to improve themselves.

If you're wondering why the state won't just post both scores when there is a follow-up inspection, state officials say they can't because that's the way the law was written.

If you'd like to know both the before and after scores, they say you'll have to contact your state lawmaker and ask him or her to change the law.

Back to NewsChannel 5 Investigates