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County hands out gold stars to exceptionally sanitary restaurants

By Candace Nelson

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Borrowing a grade school teacher's strategy, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department is handing out gold stars.

And it seems to be avoiding the Lake Woebegone effect, with everyone above average.

Using its new inspection system, the department has worked its way through about half of the county's 1,200-plus restaurants.

Of those 595 inspected to date, 26 - only 4 percent - have received those gold stars.

A pilot of the new inspection system started last summer and now is fully in place. The gold star program began on Feb. 1.

It was created to distinguish exceptional facilities that exhibit superior compliance with health law, said Anita Ray, the department's director of environmental health.

"I think it's going well for a relatively new program," Ray said. "What our hopes are - though we haven't been doing it long enough to tell - is that it will be an extra incentive for people to operate safely."

Nasandra Wright, sanitarian supervisor, said, "We want to highlight facilities that are doing an exemplary job."

Betty Lou's Diner in South Charleston received one of those gold stars. Its employees say the conditions that earned them that award should be the standard way to operate.

"I think it's a good incentive because every restaurant should be held accountable to a high standard," said Stefani Angel, 23, a manager at Betty Lou's.

"Every restaurant should be clean, and everything should be in order."

Angel has been working at the diner off and on since it first opened on Jan. 22, 2010.

"It's not difficult. I clean every day. I have a list I go by," she said.

"We strive to be one of the best and one of the cleanest restaurants we possibly can. If we go out and eat at a restaurant, we don't want it to be dirty. We want people to feel at home.

"It's a family-owned diner, and the owners and I live in the neighborhood. We want our customers to feel welcome."

To qualify for a gold star, facilities must have zero critical violations and only a few non-critical violations, with the number varying according to the establishment's risk level.

Facilities are assigned a level ranging from 1 to 4 that indicates how much of a risk they could pose to the public.

Risk level 1 facilities include gas stations that serve prepackaged food. Risk level 4 facilities include major restaurants that serve dishes made from scratch.

Risk level 1 facilities can have no more than 1 non-critical violation; level 2 can have no more than two; level 3 can have no more than three; and level 4 can have no more than five.

Non-critical violations are those not directly related to foodborne illness but if uncorrected could lead to critical violations.

Wright said the most common non-critical violations are related to cleanliness.

Critical violations are considered more likely to contribute directly to food contamination or illness. The most common include employees failing to wash their hands or wear gloves and improper cooking methods, she said.

"We wanted to highlight the facilities that are already doing an exemplary job before sanitarians come in," Wright said. "When a sanitarian walks in, they have to be in great condition to start with."

The gold star program was announced in conjunction with the institution of probationary periods after facility closures.

When a restaurant has three open critical violations - meaning they could not correct the problems while the sanitarian was inspecting - the facility is closed and a red banner is placed on its posted inspection report.

The rating system uses the color green to representing excellent compliance; yellow for good compliance; and orange for fair compliance.

A red rating closes the establishment.

Each level of the color rating is based on the number of critical violations, which are more severe and considered hazardous to food safety, combined with "non-critical" violations, which are not hazardous to food safety and human health.

After the facility has corrected the critical violations, it will receive a probationary inspection that will allow it to reopen, and the sanitarian will place a canary yellow sign on the posted report.

The Malden Fas Check was the most recent closure but it reopened two days later. It initially had 36 food and safety code violations.

The department has seven full-time and two part-time food sanitarians who conduct two to three inspections per day. Each sanitarian is assigned a geographical territory.

"We would like to get the inspections done within one calendar year, so we're aiming to get them done next year by Feb. 1. By then, we want to get all facilities through the system," Wright said. "We're definitely on target."

Starting May 27, the health department will roll out online swimming pool inspections.

The inspections will reveal water chemistry and other information for 97 pools in the county. That number includes outdoor pools as well as indoor and outdoor pools in hotels, recreational facilities and other public places.

"For the upcoming pool season - starting right around Memorial Day - we wanted to make that information available to the public more easily," Wright said.

"While the inspection process isn't changing, we just want to make information available and transparent."

Contact writer Candace Nelson at or 304-348-5148. Follow her at

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