Andy's Restaurant Scorecard: Inspector shortage in Shelby County

Andy's Restaurant Scorecard: Inspector shortage in Shelby County
(Photo Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Photo Source: WMC Action News 5)

(WMC) - Seven inspectors.

A total of 4,208 Shelby County food establishments that must be inspected at least twice a year by state mandate.

You do the math.

By any measure, the Shelby County Health Department is short on restaurant inspectors, even if it did have its full complement of "environmentalists," as they are officially titled. The department's food sanitation division is budgeted for only nine environmentalists.

It has seven.

It's had difficulty filling the two open positions, and in the last year, two of the department's food sanitation managers and one lead restaurant environmentalist have retired.

"They're in the field. They work after-hours. We get it done," said Dr. Tyler Zerwekh, the department's administrator of environmental health services, about the inspectors' efforts to meet the twice-a-year mandate. "They're very tired, but we do get it done."

But in the last five weeks, the Restaurant Scorecard has seen a decline in the generation of restaurant inspection reports -- an average of 15 a week compared to 35-40 a week. This week, inspectors generated only six restaurant inspection reports (see below).

"What you receive is actually not an accurate representation of what's done," Zerwekh said. "The environmentalist has to close out the inspection, and then they enter it into the state database, then you receive the inspection. Given the Labor Day holiday, a lot of the inspections were not entered into the database and not turned over to (Restaurant Scorecard)."

Zerwekh would not discuss the salary range or benefits of the restaurant environmentalist position. He said it requires a bachelor's degree in a health science, preferably biology. As of this writing, the county's online job listings are missing the department's two available positions.

When asked how seven or even nine environmentalists can accurately and thoroughly inspect more than 4,000 restaurants twice a year, he answered, "We are audited annually by the Tennessee Department of Health, and we meet the requirements for the contract."

State health records indicated the last audit of the Shelby County Health Department's food sanitation services was in 2012. According to the audit, Shelby County's restaurant environmentalists identified and marked the most critical violations -- like hazardous food temperatures and insect infestations -- "...significantly less (often) than the statewide statistical average..."

The audit called that a "...serious discrepancy" and demanded improvement.

During the course of the audit, Shelby County environmentalists received training from state health officials and eventually made those critical violations 80 percent of the focus of their inspections.

"The Shelby County Health Department was never in danger of being out of compliance with their contract," said Shelley L. Walker, assistant director of communication and media relations for the Tennessee Department of Health.

Now two years since the audit, the environmentalists are focused on what's called 'risk-based' inspections. They zero in on restaurant employee behavior -- poor hygiene and hand-washing, food-borne illness risks, unsafe cooking temperatures -- in preparation of Tennessee shifting to a risk-based health code in the summer of 2015.

"I think it's more focused. It's more thorough," said Patrick Reilly, owner and executive chef of The Majestic Grille, 145 S. Main St., and the president of the 400-member strong Memphis Restaurant Association.

Reilly said despite the shortage of environmentalists, restaurant inspections have improved in Shelby County.

He added he doesn't want to see the department rush to fill the positions because some past environmentalists were poor inspectors.

"I wouldn't say they were unprofessional," he said. "I would just say they were either overzealous or unaware of all the rules or how they should be interpreted."


Subway, 5135 Quince Rd., Balmoral/East Memphis, 100 on Sept. 4

RYU Sushi Bar Steakhouse & Seafood, 5137 Summer Ave., Berclair/East Memphis, 97 on Sept. 4

Firehouse Subs, 5062 Park Ave., Eastgate Shopping Center/East Memphis, 97 on Sept. 4

Ricki's Cookie Corner, 5068 Park Ave., Eastgate Shopping Center/East Memphis, 96 on Sept. 4

Skewer, 5101 Sanderlin Ave., Sanderlin Centre/East Memphis, 96 on Sept. 4

YoLo FroYo, Gelato and Cake Bakery, 6 Cooper St., Overton Square/Midtown Memphis, 96 on Sept. 3

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