No truth to restaurant sign threats

LAWRENCEVILLE - Several Gwinnett County restaurant managers recently received a serious-sounding letter from the Georgia Food Service Compliance Center in Atlanta.

According to the notice on official letterhead, restaurants are required to post hand-washing signs at all sinks. These posters must be of specific sizes, as presented in section 2-310.12 of "the code" and cannot be homemade, the GFSCC warns. Investigations and inspections are forthcoming, and any food service establishment found in violation could pay fines as high as $2,500 per day of violation, possibly lose their business license and might even face one year in prison, according to the mailer.

The vision of jail time for failing to erect the correct size hand washing poster can be a frightening thought. However, the Georgia Food Service Compliance Center will sell an operator signs made to "exact specifications" for $19.95, plus $2.95 each for shipping.

Sounds like a cheap price to pay to avoid a $2,500 a day fine and a year behind bars.

So what's the catch?

Restaurant operators don't have to buy them, said Vernon Goins, public information officer for the East Metro Health District in Lawrenceville.

"There is no penalty under Georgia's current codes for not posting hand-washing signs," Goins said. "We bring them when we conduct an inspection. If they are old and battered, we replace them free of charge. We encourage them and provide posters at no charge to the restaurant."

Restaurant operators can pick up signs at the Gwinnett County Health Department at 240 Oak St. in Lawrenceville. In fact, if a restaurant owner or manager doesn't particularly care for the free signs provided, they may make their own or have no signs at all, if they choose, Goins said.

The code 2-301.12 quoted in the letter is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's instructions on hand washing, which doesn't mention penalties for failing to hang signs.

Durango Steak House in Lawrenceville received the letter about two months ago. Restaurant managers said it was a very generic letter, but it looked real. They called the local health inspector's office to make sure they had the correct size hand-washing signs posted and learned the letter was not from a government agency at all.

Lucrative business

Georgia is the latest state to endure a rash of warning letters regarding the signage. State agencies in Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia have posted press releases regarding the Food Service Compliance Center's practices. Various government agencies in those states have released statements disputing the letter's claims.

The Georgia Food Service Compliance Center's distinguished letterhead lists its location as 931 Monroe Drive Suite 102 #401, Atlanta. That address leads to a mailbox in a UPS store near Ansley Mall. A retail counter person confirmed that the GFSCC rents a box in the store, but would not point out which one or disclose any other names associated with the mailbox.

James Trahan, manager of the franchise UPS store, said they plan to take no action at this time against the Food Service Compliance Center.

"An investigation would have to come through the Consumer Affairs Department or the Better Business Bureau," Trahan said.

The letter lists GFSCC's business ID number. But Sherry Johnson of Atlanta's Business Licensing Office said the number was too long to be one of theirs. Her office has no record of a business license issued to the Georgia Food Service Compliance Center, although they could be licensed under another name, she said.

Angela Fox, a customer service manager for the Food Service Compliance Center, said the center is based in Michigan. She agreed to answer any written questions faxed to her toll-free telephone number. The answers never came, and customer service representatives hung up on later calls.

The Food Service Compliance Center has recorded a disclaimer on its toll-free line stating that the federal food code and penalties referred to in the letter may not apply to certain states. Restaurant staff can make those signs themselves, the recording advises.

A search through the Better Business Bureau's Web site turned up no complaints about the Food Service Compliance Center. The company's Richmond, Va., business address, the only one listed with the Better Business Bureau, leads to a single-family home whose occupant said he has never heard of the company.

Is the Food Service Compliance Center breaking any laws by misquoting regulations and implying that restaurant operators could be fined and imprisoned for having the wrong size hand-washing signs or none at all?

"An investigation would have to happen to answer that question," said Shawn Conroy, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs. "If they are misrepresenting the fact that these signs are required, it is possibly deceptive and possibly against the Fair Business Practices Act."

Goins said restaurant operators should also check out anyone who comes to the business claiming to be a health inspector.

"We require our people to wear badges," Goins said. "If someone doesn't show that badge, the owner or manager should demand it. We are not a top secret agency."