A closer look at health department
Inspections at restaurants, hotels and pools help to keep Polk county safe.
There’s a lot to be said for the work the Polk County Health Department does on a daily basis to keep the public safe from all kinds of hazards. Most people don’t pay much attention to this work as they fight a constant battle to ensure the public at large remains healthy and that undue harm isn’t inflicted by the bad habits of business owners and local residents alike.
The Polk County Health Department is part of the Northwest Georgia Public Health division of the Georgia Department of Public Health, one of 10 counties in the district. The organization is responsible for a lot of different areas where they touch the lives of local people, from providing health care services as part of the Women, Infant and Children program, vaccinations, inspections for a variety of service-based businesses and more.
For the past 6 years, the statewide Department of Public Health has operated as a standalone agency so funds could be solely focused on providing health-related services within a narrow purview to the public. Overall, there are 18 districts in the state, employing thousands of people in Georgia with the goal of keeping epidemics from spreading, food safe to eat, and more.
That overall mission of keeping the public healthy will be the focus in the coming months of a multi- part series on the various ways officials impact the lives of local residents, and in many ways people might not have considered before. Read more in this first installment below to learn about how the health department touches the lives of Polk County morning, afternoon, evening and night by ensuring the food they are served, hotel beds are clean and pools are well maintained.
Inspecting the chefs
Posted in every establishment cooking and serving f ood i n Polk County is a sign that looks a lot like a complicated report card, and printed in big numerals and a letter grade is the score. The rules require this document be in plain view for customers to see and decide if they want to eat food from that kitchen, whether good or bad.
That’s the job of Polk County’s Environmental Health Manager Kathy Couey Miller, who among her many daily assignments is tasked with poking around local kitchens and dining rooms serving customers daily. Through inspections that can take hours to complete, Miller searches through store rooms and looks over steel surfaces all with one goal in mind: ensuring that food served up is as safe to eat as she can possibly make it.
Miller takes the job seriously. Upon entering a kitchen in the Cedartown area in the past weeks, her first stop is to wash her hands at the closest sink she can find, looking to make sure that it has soap and paper towels. She’s looking to see if it is being used by employees.
Then she looks around for other potential problems. Anywhere along the line where food is stored, then prepared and served up can cause contamination from bacteria or viruses that can make customers sick. That’s her job in a nutshell whenever she is sent out to inspect a restaurant: making sure people don’t get sick from eating an otherwise good meal.
Whenever she is in a kitchen, Miller is constantly checking and searching for anything that doesn’t look right. She wants to make sure machines used in preparing food are cleaned and covered up when not in use, and then is being kept clean once it has come into contact with ingredients. She’s looking at how plates, silverware and cups being removed from tables in the dining room through the dishwashing process, making sure they are stored properly until used again for another order.
Miller’s goal is to find nothing wrong, but like all people no one is ever perfect. She usually finds problems in food storage, labeling and one particular place that is a constant problem: ice machines.
“Ice machines are a particular problem,” Miller said. “If t hey aren’t cleaned regularly, they can develop mold and bacteria growth, especially during the summer when there’s more humidity.”
The small problem s are usually the ones that get a kitchen into hot water with the Health Department, and usually don’t subtract much from the overall score. It is when Miller finds bigger problem that a restaurant will get a lower score, and she’ll go back within a few weeks to see if management has corrected problems and rescore the restaurant for the month.
Additionally, restaurants with failing scores are also required to undergo more food safety training with staff to ensure that the same prob- lems aren’t coming up again. Complaints from customers made to the department can also cause a surprise inspection, and in those times Miller can find problems just as much as she can find that nothing is wrong at all.
When a restaurant fails to live up to the Health Department’s requirements, they go through several different levels of corrective efforts before they reach a point where they are shut down. Miller said that the Health Department’s goal isn’t to force a restaurant to close, but to work with business owners to get problems fixed.
“Our goal isn’t to get in the way of a restaurant from serving people,” she said. “We want to help a business do a better job of preparing and serving food safely. We want a restaurant to be successful, and we want them to do a good job so our job is easier to do.”
A task sometimes difficult to complete.
It is when those problems persist that they end up in formal proceedings, facing shutdown from health officials and a hearing before the board of health on whether the restaurant should be allowed to continue operations.
Those instances are rare, and with more than 100 food service establishments under the health department’s purview in the county alone, the hours can add up for the amount of time spent in kitchens for Miller and her assistant.
Miller’s role as manager also places her in charge of looking over the operations of kitchens used to prepare food in catering service, and for those who also operate food trucks like Timbo’s barbecue.
Also in most cases, when a restaurant proposes to open and are building or remodeling a space for a kitchen, Miller and her department are involved in the design and flow of the space to ensure the least amount of potential food contamination by starting with the layout of a kitchen, eliminating points of contact by using architectural plans.
One area where the Health Department doesn’t usually inspect is self-service food and drink stations at local gas stations. Though they are inspected, that falls under the job of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and their inspectors.
No inspections are re- quired for local residents who provide food at events like the Homespun Festival in Rockmart, where since it is a fundraiser is excluded from usual food service rules. Additionally, those who are making cookies and cakes for bake sales or school events are also not under the health department’s purview, since those organizations usually fall under a non-profit organization.
Miller did say that those participating in those kinds of events should take proper precautions against food contamination, for the simple reason to keep customers happy and healthy with their food.
Searching the sheets, diving into pool safety
Kitchens aren’t the only area Miller is inspecting on a daily basis. Her job takes her into a lot of different places, but one not thought about much but with big implications for public health are also checked for cleanliness.
Hotel rooms are i n popular culture seen as a germophobe’s worst nightmare, but in reality are kept to just as strict standards as restaurants.
Miller and her assistant are required to look just as thoroughly through local hotel rooms as they are through a restaurant’s kitchen. Miller has more specific requirements in her search of temporary residences, looking at the cleanliness of beds and sheets, of toilets and tubs and more.
“Several of our hotels on the outside might look older, but I can assure you after years of looking at rooms in Cedartown and Rockmart that every one of our facilities is safe to stay in,” she said.
Just as restaurants are required to keep a score posted in public view, so are hotels.
Lucky for Miller, the other inspection area that touches the lives of Polk County residents — or at least their summer visitors — is in the pair of hotel pools.
Miller makes sure pH levels are kept right and machinery is pumping treated water through the system right, and that proper maintenance and testing is being done by hotel employees to keep water-borne illnesses are kept at bay.
The goal is to avoid bacteria and viruses that can cause people to get sick just by jumping in for a quick swim during the summer months.
‘Our goal isn’t to get in the way of a restaurant from serving people. We want to help a business do a better job of preparing and serving food safely.’ Kathy Couey-Miller Polk County’s Environmental Health Manager
Rule No. 1 for Environmental Health Manager Kathy Couey-Miller, who oversees restaurant inspections in Polk County: wash your hands.
Environmental Health Manager Kathy Couey-Miller uses a thermometer to check the temperature of warm foods, like the pizza shown above, and cold foods, like the beverages below, to make sure everything is kept at a safe optimum temperature. Kevin...