JONESBORO, Ga. -
The people who ran China A restaurant in Jonesboro may not be able to speak English very well, but they know how to read a calendar just like you.
"Were you wondering why they hadn't come by in two years to inspect you?"
"I not sure they tell me," said a manager who did not provide her name.
It wasn't her fault the Clayton County Health Department was last here May, 2015 when the Tara Boulevard eatery proudly scored a 100 duirng its restaurant health inspection.
"You called them and said hey! where are you and what did they tell you?" I asked.
"Because I don't speak English, I just waiting for them to come here," she replied.
If she's waiting for them to come, that line stretches pretty far. Even though the state of Georgia mandates inspections every six months, the FOX 5 I-Team visited several Clayton County restaurants where inspectors failed to show at least twice. An Applebees last checked November, 2015... a Golden Corral October, 2015... and a Taco Mac with an April, 2015 inspection posted.
An estimated 200 of the 766 restaurants in Clayton County missed at least two inspections. A few haven't been checked since 2014.
Most of the missed inspections involved restaurants that typically score an A or a B. But one in Forest Park scored Cs three times in a row. The last time Clayton County was out there? October, 2015.
We asked Dr. Kevin Mason, the deputy district director of the Clayton County Board of Health, how it got this bad.
"Things happen, you know," he explained. "The economy. You can't compete with salaries from some of the other districts. It's a big issue that we're addressing."
Dr. Mason became deputy director last June with Clayton County already way behind. No one asked for state inspectors to help out until November when the backlog stretched to 200 eateries.
But guess who's not complaining about the lack of attention? Restaurants with previous bad scores.
The score we saw posted inside China Kong in Rex was a comforting 93... an A. But when we looked closer at the date, we saw that 93 was issued in December, 2013. The last time inspectors were actually in China Kong was December 2015 when they issued a C, with points off for the conditions and temperature of the food. The time before that? They landed an unsatisfactory 69.
"Your inspection is four years old almost," I pointed out to the China Kong restaurant manager.
"I don't know," he claimed.
Dr. Mason tried to minimize the concern.
"That's them hanging up the wrong inspection certificate," he remarked. "Give them a 2015, the 2015 should be hanging."
"But your folks, if you'd been inspecting on a regular basis would have caught that," I pointed out.
"Anybody would have caught that," he insisted. "Just like you did."
"I wasn't aware of that either," Mark Robinson told us as he sat eating in the China Kong dining area. "I don't always pay attention to it. Most people pay attention to the score, not necessarily the date."
We paid attention to something else in Clayton County: the number of times any restaurant gets an unsatisfactory score, anything below 70. According to state records, since 2014, Clayton issued 31 unsatisfactory scores. That's about 4% of their total number of restaurants, the lowest of all metro counties. Cobb had 5%, Fulton 7%, Dekalb 16% and Gwinnett County 28% unsatisfactory inspections in that same time period.
"Does Clayton County have restaurants that are that much better than those other counties?" I asked Dr. Mason.
"I can't comment on that."
"Are you concerned at all that your inspectors are going easy on restaurants?"
"I didn't say they were going easy on restaurants. You're saying that."
"Are you concerned that's a possibility?"
"That's not a possibility."
The Georgia Department of Public Health suggested Clayton's small number of bad scores could be connected to the missed inspections, but can't be sure. In January alone since state inspectors joined in to help clear the backlog, Clayton flagged 5 unsatisfactory restaurants.
It may take as long as a year to catch up. In the meantime, director of food safety for GDPH Scott Urlich offered this advice:
"If you're in a clean establishment, if you've been frequenting that establishment and you're familiar with it, and they've always got good scores, then I think you're ok."
Just don't be automatically assured by an impressive score in a first-time visit, on a piece of paper that may not have budged in years.
"It's not good," agreed customer Todd Betsill. "You need to have some kind of control. If you don't, you're eating out of a garbage can."