Data shows DHEC employs too few health inspectors for Lowcountry restaurants
Strawberries are the most popular frozen yogurt topping at Sweet Cece’s on Market Street, and manager Ken Calabro and his staff handle up to 16 pounds of them a day with the precision of surgeons.
What the grades mean
Facilities inspected by the state health department receive one of three possible grades.
“acceptable to very good”
“marginal to acceptable”
“poor to marginal”
Calabro snaps on a new pair of latex gloves. He picks off the green stems, washes the berries in a sink used exclusively for produce and stores them in a stainless steel box. Every surface the sliced fruit touches is sterile. The kitchen, smelling faintly of fresh waffle cones, is pristine.
There are 1,933 permitted retail food establishments in Charleston County alone, and the state health department is responsible for inspecting all of them at least once a year.
Here is a small sampling of some of the Holy City’s top restaurants and some of the lesser-known local spots.
The department maintains the full list of all inspections online. The list is searchable by the public, www.scdhec.gov.
Downtown Charleston restaurants:
Last inspected: Feb. 26
Score: A (89)
Charleston Beer Works
Last inspected: Feb. 11
Score: A (94)
Hyman’s Seafood Co.
Last inspected: Feb. 8
Score: A (88)
Last inspected: March 11
Score: A (88)
Last inspected: June 3
Score: A (90)
Last inspected: June 13
Score: A (99)
Last inspected: Feb. 12
Score: A (99)
Wild Olive (Johns Island)
Last inspected: March 8
Score: A (88)
Red Drum (Mount Pleasant)
Last inspected: July 12
Score: A (95)
Chipotle Mexican Grill (North Charleston)
Last inspected: May 20
Score: A (94)
Crab Shack (Folly Beach)
Last inspected: March 5
Score: A (88)
Sweet Cece’s earned 99 out of 100 possible points during its most recent health department inspection this spring.
“You have to be as good or better than the guy next to you,” Calabro said. There are at least three other shops selling “froyo” near Sweet Cece’s, all of them catering to hundreds of tourists perusing the Market every day.
“If it’s a good, reputable place, regardless of what the health department says or does, they are going to keep the place clean — especially downtown,” he said.
Competition may be a driving force behind cleanliness, but it may not be enough to prevent all cases of food-borne illness. Data shows that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control employs too few health inspectors in Charleston by federal standards.
About 2,750 permitted retail food establishments — including restaurants, delis, school cafeterias, supermarkets, butcher shops, bakeries and seafood markets — make up the backbone of the Lowcountry’s booming tourism industry, but only eight inspectors patrol the region.
The federal Food and Drug Administration recommends that every establishment should be inspected up to four times a year.
In the tri-county area, each inspector is responsible for between 227 and 327 facilities, making it virtually impossible for inspectors to meet that benchmark.
That may be OK for restaurant owners and chefs, especially those who find the inspections time consuming, but it poses a potential food-safety threat.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million Americans get sick every year with a food-borne-related illness. About 128,000 are hospitalized, and more than 3,000 die from food poisoning every year.
The CDC estimated that the aggregate cost of food-borne illnesses was $77.7 billion in 2011, the most recent year for which the information was available.
In South Carolina, the state health department’s website says it investigates about 3,000 consumer reports about food poisoning a year. Since January, the department has investigated 31 illness complaints related to food establishments in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties.
With each illness report, DHEC attempts to contact and interview the complainant to determine the scope and timing of the event. It is difficult to determine if or when a case is solved, said DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley.
“People have the tendency to associate GI (gastrointestinal) illness with their most recent meal, which may or may not be the source of their illness,” Beasley said. “Therefore, you cannot draw the conclusion that an illness complaint against a food establishment is necessarily valid.”
Beasley said the number of restaurant inspectors in the state fluctuates depending on how much state funding is allocated to the department.
“We had a funding increase in 2008, which resulted in more inspectors,” he wrote in an email. “Our funding has been cut each year since, resulting in a loss of inspectors while the number of facilities has continued to rise. However, our inspection team is larger than pre-2008.”
DHEC employs 77 inspectors statewide.
DHEC Director Catherine Templeton said she has spent much time making sure each region in the state has an appropriate number of inspectors, based on need, since she took the job in 2012. She said she has hired two more food inspectors for the Charleston area since then.
“I had friends in the restaurant business who said you need more down here, so we hired two more,” Templeton said. “Wherever we’ve needed staffing, we’ve hired it.”
Templeton said DHEC staffs the number of inspectors based on the assumption that each restaurant needs to be inspected twice a year, double what state law requires. The department is currently inspecting each restaurant in the state about 1.7 times a year. The more stringent federal recommendations are not enforceable.
“(The health department inspectors) come in here once a year, but usually no more than that,” Calabro said. “I came from New York City where they were in there once a month.”
For a closer comparison, the Chatham County (Ga.) Health Department employs eight inspectors for the 1,138 food service establishments around Savannah, or one inspector for every 142 facilities.
South Carolina employs inspectors at the state level because inspectors can cross county lines to inspect restaurants throughout a region.
Beasley said South Carolina’s inspection program is “risk-based,” meaning some restaurants are deliberately inspected more frequently than others.
“While the regulation says that each retail food establishment shall receive one inspection per year, a retail food establishment may receive four to five inspections, depending on their processes or their past compliance history,” he said.
Restaurants in South Carolina are required to post their inspection scores in a visible area.
“That’s one of the first things that I look at,” said Aaron Butts, 43, of Summerville, who was taking his sons to lunch at Mellow Mushroom on King Street. “You want that restaurant to have a minimum of an ‘A.’ ”
The health department’s online database, which publishes the latest inspection scores for all facilities in the state, shows that most restaurants receive “A” ratings.
The public can access this database to query any restaurant or food facility in South Carolina.
Kathy Britzius, executive director of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association, said she doesn’t think the number of DHEC food inspectors is affecting food safety.
“I really don’t think so,” Britzius said. “I know that they’re really working hard to at least fix it. It’s very difficult for them.”
A spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs said the department does not investigate consumer complaints about restaurants or food safety. “This is not a topic that falls in our wheelhouse,” she said.
Kristin Hiller, for one, isn’t too worried. Hiller, 27, of Greenville, spent time in Charleston recently with her family and dined at some of the city’s most popular restaurants.
“It’s not something you think of because the restaurants are clean,” she said. “You don’t see the back, but everything you see out front doesn’t make you think there’s a problem.”
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.