SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – With a mission to protect the lives of all Georgians, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is the lead agency in actions such as preventing disease and injury and promoting health and well-being.  

DPH funds and collaborates with the state’s 159 county health departments and 18 public health districts.  

“Every day, more than 6,000 dedicated public health employees throughout the state of Georgia are working for you. From public health laboratory technicians who test every new Georgia baby for life-threatening conditions – about 130,000 children a year – to inspecting the restaurants you dine in, to making sure the swimming pools you swim in are safe,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of Georgia DPH.

One of the department’s main functions is environmental health, providing prevention through surveillance, education, enforcement and assessment. Food Service is one of over a dozen programs that falls under Environmental Health Services.

Locally, Chatham County Environmental Health Services plays a significant role in not only making sure the public stays healthy, but also ensuring food service businesses are operating successfully through inspections.

“We make sure all of the food code rules are being followed and also help to educate the restaurant staff and make sure when we come out that rules are being followed,” said Ginger Heidel.

Heidel is a risk communicator with the Coastal Health District, which serves eight local counties, including Chatham.

“We want to make sure that the people who are there understand what the rules are and help them come into compliance with everything,” she explained. “It’s a combination of making sure that the public stays healthy and making sure that the restaurants know what’s expected of them and what they need to do to be in compliance.”

Regarding frequency, inspections of food service establishments are conducted based on risk categorization. The risk type is determined by the menu items served, food preparation processes performed and previous food safety history. Each establishment is be grouped into one of the following categories:

  1. Risk Type I: Frequency of inspection will be one time per year for establishments that do not cook any foods. This includes establishments that may reheat commercially precooked ingredients or foods such as hotdogs and sausages.
  2. Risk Type II: Frequency of inspection will be two times per year for establishments that cook and/or hold and reheat foods that are prepared onsite.
  3. Risk Type III: Frequency of inspection will be three times per year for establishments that have a required Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan that is deemed in conformance with DPH Rule 511-6-1-.02(6). One of these inspections will be a scheduled inspection to meet with the Certified Food Safety Manager.

During an inspection, the following categories are examined: food temperature control; pest and animal control; prevention of food contamination; proper use of utensils; utensils, equipment and vending; water, plumbing and waste; physical facilities; and others.

A food service company can earn up to 100 points. If they score all 100, that means the inspector found absolutely nothing out of compliance. An overall score of 69 and below means an establishment is out of compliance.

When out of compliance and based on the nature of the potential hazard involved and the complexity of the corrective action needed, the permit holder has to make the corrections within 72 hours after the inspection for violations of a priority item.

Chatham County Environmental Health Services can suspend or revoke a permit if the permit holder is unwilling or unable to comply with regulations and if a violation is not corrected within a reasonable time. However, a permit may be summarily suspended upon the discovery of an imminent health hazard. 

Regarding public reporting of follow-ups, Heidel said if a restaurant is re-inspected and re-scored, a new inspection report will be posted to the state website along with the previous inspection report. However, if there is an informal follow-up visit after an inspection, the notes from that follow-up will be attached to the original inspection report and a new, separate report is not generated.

In both cases, the public has access to view the report and notes — the difference is whether or not there is a new score and new report.

Environmental Health Inspection Reports are public information and can be easily accessed online. To see a report on eating establishments in areas you frequent, visit dph.georgia.gov. Click on the “Environmental Health” tab located at the top right.  Under the “Inspection Search” section, click on “Learn More.”  From there, select a city or county in the menu options to the left. For “Permit Type,” select “Food Service.”  Select an inspection date and then click “Search.” 

You can also contact the Environmental Health Office in your area for information. The Chatham County office can be reached at 912-356-2160.