Inspection reflection; is more always better?

A rat issue in Honolulu’s Chinatown market has led to politicians to blame the situation on a shortage of state food safety inspectors and environmental health officers.

Inspectors in the region have dwindled from 23 in 1988 to nine today, causing State Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Health Committee, to state that there is an immediate public health need to beef up the number of inspectors on O’ahu.

Maybe. But it’s not as simple as throwing more food referees into the mix.

A couple of years ago, Brae Surgeoner and I interviewed restaurant operators and environmental health officers about their views regarding restaurant inspection. Almost all of the operators suggested that inspection was a good thing, and that they had a good relationship with EHOs.  And that’s when things got fun. Restaurant operators reported to us that what was being seen and recorded wasn’t representative of what was really happening with every meal.  They adjusted their personnel and their procedures so they looked good. The best part of the study for us was that the inspectors reported the same thing: they felt they weren’t getting the full picture and knew everyone was on their best behavior while they were around.

More inspectors alone won’t solve everything, and it sounds like Hawaii Department of Health’s Laurence Lau gets it.

"Any regulatory and public health program would like to have more staff," said Laurence Lau, the department’s deputy director of environmental health. "We would do more if we had more. We’re just going to do the best we can."

Lau also said even if DOH had more inspectors, they still couldn’t be "everywhere all the time" to prevent problems. "The first responsibility remains with the restaurant and the food seller to sell safe food."

The time the auditor/inspector spends in the facility represents an unrealistic snapshot of what actually happens.  Even if multiple inspectors show up to a facility over a period of time to gather more snapshots, what they see will likely be different. What’s more important to the health and safety of customers is what happens when the inspectors, or auditors, or the boss, aren’t there.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.