MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — As virtual food inspections continue more than eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control indicates the feature might become a permanent part of its food safety efforts.
“While the virtual inspection process was developed early on as a way to provide a level of oversight, we have found that it is a highly effective method of validating food safety in permitted facilities,” an emailed statement from DHEC reads. “However, when necessary or if compliance concerns do arise, we can conduct onsite routine inspections.”
The state plans to continue to use the virtual inspections as a “compliance assistance tool,” according to the statement, but the video calls do not replace an on-site visit with the traditional inspections and letter grades.
“When in-person inspections resume, the more complex operations and those with compliance issues will be the priority to receive a graded inspection,” the statement reads.
The virtual inspections began in March, as the COVID-19 virus caused the temporary shutdowns of dine-in eating. As restaurants began resuming dine-in service, inspections have remained virtual, with hundreds taking place from March until November.
“Our virtual inspection process will continue to be our primary food safety validation while South Carolina is considered to be at-high risk for the spread of COVID-19,” the statement reads. “This is for the safety of the employees of the retail food establishments and our DHEC staff as social distancing is very difficult to obtain in a retail food establishment kitchen.”
DHEC did not make someone from their food inspection team available for comment.
The team at Hook and Barrel in Myrtle Beach volunteered for a virtual inspection early into the change, said Heidi Vukov, who owns the restaurant. Vukov said the inspection was done over a video call, where an inspector had them complete tasks, check temperatures on different items and take pictures.
“It was pretty thorough because they tell you where to go,” Vukov said.
It was similar to a regular inspection, she said, but she doesn’t think the virtual visits replace in-person ones.
“I still think that someone needs to step into people’s places of business from time to time,” Vukov said.
While Hook and Barrel has managers conduct in-house inspections several times throughout the week, Vukov said knowing that a DHEC inspector could stop by at any time makes the crew more conscious about requirements. She said always being prepared for an inspection helps keep the local food industry comply with requirements.
“I think it is important for the safety of our community, and the safety of our staff, for everyone,” she said.
The South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association did not respond to a request for comment.