Rock Hill's Tina Bailey, a single working mother of two, often is too busy to cook meals. So she and her family get take-out or eat at restaurants almost daily.
Bailey is concerned about proposed state budget cuts that might force the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to cut down on the number of food service health inspections it makes each year in restaurants.
"I think they are cutting out the wrong things," said Bailey, 45, referring to the inspections. "Can they accomplish what they are setting out to do if they cut back visits?"
The state agency makes an average of two unannounced inspections to a restaurant each year, spokesman Adam Myrick said. Under a proposed $1.5 million state budget cut, that average could be reduced to one visit a year, he said.
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The proposed changes in the number of restaurant inspections would take effect during the fiscal year that begins in June unless the state can maintain current funding, Myrick said.
Neal Smoak, director of McCutchen House, a student operated restaurant at the University of South Carolina, said fewer restaurant health inspections could put customers at risk for foodborne disease.
"There is a risk that restaurants will get lazy and start slipping," Smoak said.
Smoak said the state health agency inspects the entire physical area of a food service establishment and all aspects of how food is handled -- including the conditions in the food preparation area of a restaurant's kitchen.
"DHEC looks at things such as: Is the cutting board clean? Is food held at the right temperature? Do the cook's hands have cuts on them?" he said.
A DHEC inspection verifies that restaurants are complying with state regulations, Smoak said. He said most restaurants do a good job in complying with state guidelines because they need to make profit to stay in business.
"The worst thing that can happen is if somebody gets sick -- it can ruin their business," Smoak said.
Some local restaurant owners disagree, saying fewer state health inspections won't change the way in which most restaurants comply with state health regulations.
"I think if DHEC and restaurants have a good working relationship, where they strive to maintain A standards, I think it would be fine," said Roger Baldwin, owner of Tropical Escape Cafe and Bar in Rock Hill.
"If there are issues, maybe do a spot inspection instead of a full inspection on certain critical areas, such as food handling," Baldwin said.
Myrick said he doesn't know when DHEC will know for certain whether state budget cuts will affect the frequency of its restaurant visits.
However, the proposed changes would not mean that all restaurants would only be inspected once a year, Myrick said. He said the number of inspections a restaurant receives is based on its potential for foodborne illness.
That potential is measured by factors such as the type of food prepared, how the food is prepared, what population is served and the complexity of the cooking process, he said.
Based on its risk factor, he said, some restaurants will continue to have more than one inspection. However, he said, most only would be inspected once yearly.
Myrick said budget cuts would not affect the agency's investigation of complaints made by the public or inquiries about outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
"They will be investigated as soon as possible," he said.
Myrick said state regulations only require food service health inspections to be conducted at least once a year. About five years ago, the state increased its visits to an average of two per year, Myrick said.
"It's just for greater protection of the public's health," he said.
Rock Hill resident Willie Hamrick, who dines out at least weekly with friends, said he's concerned about less frequent DHEC visits to restaurants.
"I don't think the inspections are good enough to begin with," Hamrick said. He worries that some restaurants might become less concerned about cleanliness.
Hamrick and Bailey said they always check the health inspection grade that a restaurant receives and won't eat there if it's less than an A.
"I think we need to cut where we can," Hamrick said, "but not at the risk of it interfering with people's health."