RAW DEAL: Will fewer health inspections put you at risk?

RAW DEAL: Will fewer health inspections put you at risk?

PINE BELT (WDAM) - The number's do not lie.

Restaurant inspections in Mississippi have dropped significantly in 2016, and it is all because the number of inspectors in the Magnolia State have been cut by more than a third.

The State Health Department regulates all places that serve food, including gas station delis, school cafeterias, restaurants and catering companies.

State Health Officer Mary Currier said how often they are inspected depends on their risk level.

"The ones that may be a higher risk are a group of people they are serving like a nursing home or hospital, people who are more likely to have problems if they are exposed to a bacteria or virus or something like that," Currier said. "They may be restaurants that reheat food."

Once a year, or once a month depending on the risk, inspectors come in and check a variety of things such as the freezer being out, rodents in the kitchens or no place for employees to wash hands.

Some of these critical violations can be corrected on site, but others cannot. If a restaurant receives at least one of those violations, they get a C.

"We've made it more risk-based and more dependent on how the restaurant has done on inspections in the past," Currier said. "So if they have done really well, they don't get inspected as much."

A deeper look revealed a 38 percent decrease in inspections statewide over the last six months compared to 2015.

"We should not be surprised by it, nor do I think we should be overly concerned about it from a public health standpoint," said Mike Cashion with the MS Hospitality and Restaurant Association.

Cashion has worked in the restaurant industry for more than 30 years.

"It can put a restaurant out of business in a heartbeat. It's absolutely to their benefit to pay attention," Cashion said.

In theory, fewer inspections could mean a greater public health risk if they lead to more critical violations. But more digging found that the percentage of B's and C's statewide went down over the last six months compared to last year.

On the surface, this could mean that those cuts form lawmakers have not made eating at restaurants more risky.

"I don't think six to eight months is enough time to really assess, and we have had some glitches going forward with the new system," Currier said. "I am hopeful that we are going to be doing this in a different way that is more efficient and follows up on those restaurants that need to be followed up on."

Currier said that 25 inspectors either retired or were laid off statewide.

Mississippi is now operating off 45 inspections, which leaves one for every two counties. There are thousands of restaurants to inspect.

Most of the inspectors work out of their homes instead of the office, which is a direct result of decreased funding, according to Currier.

Currier also said that every state-funded position in the central office is being looked at because cuts have already been made in the field.

"Their job is to protect the public, right? I would like to see that energy going in there and really working on critical violations so the health department can focus on those restaurants or whomever has a record of critical violations to help them understand so they don't make the public sick," said Nathan Glenn, restaurateur.