What makes inspections by the Department of Health and Environmental Control more effective today, officials say, is education about critical-risk factors and correction of violations on the spot, rather than giving restaurants 10 days to make corrections.

"They’re doing a fantastic job of education," said Tom Sponseller, president of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina. "It’s been very good. The people are learning."

Gary Elliott, supervisor of DHEC’s food protection division, said he believes the new education focus will help improve scores and lower the risk of food-borne illness to the public over the long run.

"Letting people know about the risk factors upfront is a key," said Elliott, who has been in food protection with DHEC for 26 years. "That alone should make some difference."

The state requires restaurants be inspected once a year, Elliott said.

Focusing on risk factors with restaurant employees — such as maintaining proper food temperature and washing hands after handling raw meat — are important, he said, since the number of restaurants is increasing and the number of inspectors is not.

Elliott said his office has had 74 inspectors since 1997. Meanwhile, the number of facilities serving food has risen to 17,000 from 14,000.

"Any bit of education that you can give on food safety is a benefit," he said. "With more knowledge comes better understanding, and with better understanding you get better results."