When one thinks of those who are keeping people safe and healthy, EMS personnel, firefighters and law enforcement are probably the first people who come to mind. There’s another county agency, however, that plays a very important role in keeping residents safe and healthy.
The Yadkin County Environmental Health Department is a county agency that most give little thought to, yet they have an important role in the county.
The department is actually divided into two areas, food and lodging and on-site waste water, explained Director Gary Hayes. Hayes’ duties on behalf of the Environmental Health include testing soil and water samples for wells and septic tanks as well as inspecting various places in the county from restaurants to nursing homes to swimming pools.
The one time folks may give a thought to the environmental health department is when walking into a restaurant and taking note of the health department rating displayed on the wall.
Health inspections for restaurants, other food service locations, including school lunch rooms is one of the things the department is most known for. Hayes said diners may have noticed a change in their favorite restaurant’s rating in the last few years and that could be, in part, due to rules changes which went into effect several years ago.
“One of the biggest things with food is our rules changed in September of 2012,” Hayes explained. “We adopted the FDA food code. We were the last state in the country to adopt the current version of the food code, our previous rules were still based on the 1977 model food code, the very first one that ever came out.”
One change in the new rules is that previously restaurants could receive bonus points for a staff member completing an approved food safety class.
“Now you have to have an approved food safety class and you have to be present at all hours of operation or you lose two points,” Hayes said.
For most restaurants in Yadkin County, Hayes said their ratings are most likely to be affected by violations that relate to the age of the building.
“In Yadkin County we have a lot of older facilities so you’re going to run into floor, wall, ceiling issues,” he said.
Those issues are not affecting food safety directly, however. In order for a restaurant to drop an entire letter grade, there would be have to be extreme issue such as employees not washing hands, food improperly stored, or other things that would directly impact the safety of the food, Hayes said. Restaurants who fall below a score of 70 would have their permit revoked.
Hayes said that is not common, however. He said he’d only done it once so far in his 15-year career.
Restaurants could be suspended however for common issues like the hot water not working or refrigeration going out. In those cases the restaurant permit would be suspended until repairs can be made and the issue corrected.
While restaurant ratings are prominently posted, Hayes said that the public could also go online and view the inspection records for any of the facilities in the county from day cares to food service locations. Each violation at the inspected locations is uploaded to the North Carolina Public Health Inspections website, which can be accessed via the county website www.yadkincountync.gov.
“You can see word for word the violations I’ve marked with my comments,” Hayes said. “So you can look up any school and find out why they got this.”
Kim Harrell, director of human services for the county, added that another issue that sometimes comes up in regard to environmental health is new restaurant owners taking over an existing restaurant.
“That’s really a big issue here, is ownership changes in restaurants,” Hayes said. “When you purchase somebody’s restaurant, the permit becomes invalid.”
Restaurant owners must apply for a transitional permit when purchasing an existing restaurant in order to continue operation.
Protecting and improving the health of the citizens of Yadkin County through the maintenance of a healthy environment, the education of the people and the enforcement of state and local rules and regulations are the goals of the Environmental Health department. A complete list of services provided by the department can be viewed on the county website. For more information, contact the department at 336-679-4244.
Kitsey E. Burns may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.