Thousands of Oregon food safety inspections still past due

Our own Rob Mancini – most handsome man in food safety – was quoted in the Oregon Statesman Journal last week as saying, “In other jurisdictions high-risk facilities are typically inspected four times per year and low-risk facilities once per year.”

Yet according to Tracy Loew of the Statesman Journal, Oregon’s Food Safety Program remains in disarray, a year and a half after a state audit found it was so far behind on inspections of grocery stores, food processors and other licensees that public health could be at risk.

Although program officials touted an improvement in the inspection backlog just a few months ago, a newly discovered error in their tracking database has nearly wiped out the gain.

And officials can’t say whether the remaining improvement is due to completing more inspections or to adjustments they’ve made to inspection deadlines.

That means the state hasn’t checked whether hundreds of establishments are following rules to keep consumers safe — rules such as keeping deli food at correct temperatures, protecting products from pests like rats and cockroaches, keeping expired food off shelves and making sure employees wash their hands.

The Statesman Journal learned of the program’s failure after requesting a copy of the inspection database.

Stephanie Page, who oversaw the program, discovered the mistake in early March. She informed the Secretary of State’s Audits Division in early April.

“Unfortunately, the database coding error makes it very difficult for us to know for sure whether the improving trends that we were seeing were actually happening,” Page, who has since moved to another state agriculture program, wrote to auditors.

Food safety officials also discussed the mistake with the program’s Food Safety Advisory Committee, which is supposed to be open to the public.

But the committee has met in secret since the food safety audit was released in November 2016, leaving consumers out of the loop.

In a follow-up editorial, the Statesman Journal writes there are numerous explanations for the failures, but they all sound like excuses.

The takeaway remains the same for Oregonians: The state Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food safety program, cannot be both regulator and champion of those it manages.

That’s not quite true.

Safe food is a cornerstone of trade and policy.

What is true is the need for public accountability, so consumers can choose.