A ‘snapshot in time’: How restaurants get that letter grade stuck on the front door

If you frequently visit restaurants, you’ve likely seen a sticker with a blue food grade level from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

But what does that mean?

DHEC conducts inspections — what it calls a “snapshot in time” of retail food establishments’ employee behavior and preparation practices — annually or quarterly depending on the establishment’s food processes and compliance history.

Grades are on a 100-point scale, with letter grades A through C. An “A” grade is a score higher than 87 points. The “B” grade ranges from 78 to 87 points, and means an establishment’s food safety practices need improvement, according to DHEC. Grade “C” is anything less than 78 points. The C-level grade means food safety practices need “significant improvement,” according to DHEC.

Food establishments are graded on five factors set by DHEC — food contact equipment cleanliness, cooking temperatures, employee health, food sources and food holding temperatures. Examples include having proper cooking, reheating, cooling and holding temperatures, as well as employees having no bare-hand contact with food.

Temperature control safety (TCS) foods include meat, fruits, vegetables, raw seed sprouts, and cut melon and leafy greens.

There are even guidelines for sushi rice, which must be held at either below 41 degrees or above 131 degrees.

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Immediately after inspections, the department posts the grade-level decal at the establishment where it’s clearly visible for customers to see, according to DHEC’s regulation 61-25, an almost 200-page document of rules for retail food establishments. The department could suspend permits if the posted grade is covered, defaced, relocated or removed.

When consecutive violations are found, DHEC may schedule a follow up inspection, downgrade the food establishment’s grade to a lower grade, or suspend the permit, according to regulations.

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Hannah Strong: 843-444-1765, @HannahLStrong