Following up on the series of articles by Tracy Loew about grocery store inspection disclosure in Oregon, her paper, the Statesman Journal, comes out in favor of full disclosure.
That is the state’s fault.
And that is unconscionable.
The understaffed Oregon Department of Agriculture lags far behind the nationally recommended schedule for store inspections. Even worse, the public cannot easily learn what the inspectors found.
As the Statesman Journal’s Tracy Loew reported last week in stories that should raise legislators’ ire, the Agriculture Department has a huge backlog of grocery store inspections. Some stores have not been inspected for years, even though the federal government recommends inspections every six months.
State agriculture officials say that is because they prioritize inspections based on which activities in the food chain represent the greatest risk to public health and which facilities have a history of problems. That approach sounds defensible from a risk-analysis viewpoint, but it leaves widespread holes in the food-safety system.
The number of serious violations found in grocery store inspections can be astounding. Some — food being sold past the expiration date, food stored at the wrong temperature and food-handling equipment that is unclean — are enough to make the stomach turn.
The Agriculture Department inspection staff is stretched too thin. And some legislators say the situation is not unique to that department.
•Do the inspections serve the purposes for which they were intended?
•Should the inspection process be streamlined? Intensified? Eliminated?
•How are inspections financed, and is staffing appropriate for the workload?
•Are inspection reports promptly posted online, where they are easily available for public view?
For grocery stores, another question desperately needs answering: Should county health departments be given the duty — and the state funding — to inspect grocery stores.
Counties already inspect restaurants. Grocery stores have added delis and other restaurant-style options to meet Americans’ changing lifestyles. For many people, a quick stop at the grocery store has replaced either eating at home or dining out.
In contrast to the backlog in grocery store inspections, about 95 percent of Oregon restaurant inspections are completed on time. The Oregon Health Authority is responsible for those restaurant, cafe and food-cart inspections but delegates that work to counties.
Because grocery stores operate on slim profit margins and face intense competition, it’s in their best interests to have the cleanest, healthiest food handling, display and storage. Some stores have increased their own inspections to compensate for the infrequency of state inspections. That is to their credit.
Still, inspections throughout the food chain are among government’s most important roles. A government inspection report, especially one that the public easily can see, adds clout to the importance of food safety.
It is baffling that the Agriculture Department this year created a database to track inspections and findings but planned the database only for internal management use instead of posting the results online. That suggests misplaced priorities and misunderstanding of the importance of transparency. In contrast, Marion County has an easy-to-use public database of restaurant inspections.
Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislators have a duty to bring Oregon from one of the least progressive states on food-to-table inspections to one of the best. This is an issue of public health, accountability and transparency.
Oregonians should not have to file a public records request and pay a fee for a copy of a grocery store’s inspection report.
Oregonians should not be left in the dark about their neighborhood grocery stores.
Oregonians should expect that their state government ensures their food safety — regularly and publicly.