Local and state public health inspectors are some of the most important folks in the food safety world. Especially in places where the philosophy has moved from traditional sanitation observations to risk-based inspections. They are individuals who see what is really going on in kitchens, are often the technical experts for independent restaurants, and are integral in solving outbreaks.
In the entire state of Maine, there are 11 of them. According to the Portland Press Herald, this is a problem for some Maine legislators.
The Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Innkeepers Association and the Maine Tourism Association opposed the bill during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, which oversees the restaurant inspection program. The industry groups said they fear the bill would confuse restaurant owners with inconsistent rules.
The state now employs 11 inspectors, each of whom is responsible for inspecting 600 to 800 establishments a year, including restaurants, tattoo parlors, summer camps and inns.
Cooper’s bill, L.D. 1592, was submitted shortly after the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram exposed weaknesses in state and local inspection programs, including less frequent inspections and less public access to inspection results than all but two other states. The newspaper found that lawmakers reduced the mandated frequency of inspections even as complaints about sanitation or food-borne illnesses increased.
The number of restaurant-related complaints continued to rise through the fall of 2013, according to the latest records provided by the state, as the state inspectors worked to inspect restaurants once every two years. The failure rate of restaurants varied greatly by county.
Testifying for the restaurant association, Richard Grotton, the group’s former chief executive officer, said millions of people eat in Maine restaurants every year, and very few have gotten seriously ill. He urged the committee to maintain the status quo, which he called “a good system.”
The state’s illness rate for pathogens doesn’t suggest that there is anything special going on – and there’s lots of room for improvement. Maine Department of Health and Human Services reports a Salmonella incidence rate of 12.1 per 100,000 in 2012 – which is just under the national average.