PORTLAND – Nearly 80 percent of the restaurants that Portland inspected in the past year failed because of health code violations, according to a review of city inspection records.
It is unclear how that rate compares with previous years, because of limitations in the city’s record-keeping.
In August 2011, Portland hired its first health inspector devoted to restaurants. Since then, the inspector, Michele Sturgeon, has inspected 49 restaurants and failed 39 of them. Six failed initial follow-up inspections and three failed multiple follow-ups. In general, a restaurant fails if it has more than 13 violations.
The records show that the city appears to be falling short of the state requirement that restaurants be inspected every two years. Portland has about 800 restaurants and food carts. To comply with state law, it will have to inspect more than 700 restaurants in the coming year.
The Portland Press Herald obtained copies of the city inspection reports through a Freedom of Access request filed in August, weeks before the city temporarily shut down the Porthole, the Comedy Connection nightclub and the Harbour’s Edge banquet hall, all of which share a kitchen on Custom House Wharf, for violations that included a “rat infestation.”
Two other restaurants that were inspected in the past year were deemed imminent health hazards and were closed: Buffalo Wings-N-Things at 111 Cumberland Ave. and Passage to India at 29 Wharf St.
Thirty of the 39 restaurants that failed were scheduled for follow-up inspections that have not yet been done. One restaurant was scheduled for a 30-day follow-up in November but still has not been reinspected.
Common violations cited by Sturgeon include:
• Failure to have a state-certified food protection manager, who is responsible for educating the staff about safe food handling.
• Overall lack of cleanliness.
• Lack of sealing around the gaps of stationary equipment
• Use of wet rags without sanitizer.
• Improper storage of utensils.
• Moldy ice machines
• Cutting boards with rough surfaces.
Portland is among five communities that the state has authorized to inspect its own restaurants, provided their programs comply with state guidelines.
State law previously required annual inspections of restaurants, but now restaurants must be inspected every two years.
From the 1980s until last year, Portland’s restaurant inspections were done by code officers in the Planning Department. An appointment schedule for four years of restaurant inspections before August 2011 — obtained as part of the public records request — offers incomplete information about them.
Some restaurants have scores and statuses listed next to their inspections, while others have no information about scores. The schedule includes visits to convenience stores and shops that sell pre-packaged food, in addition to restaurants.
Tammy Munson, director of the inspections division, said the city’s computer system could not generate a list including only restaurants, let alone a list of those that failed inspections.
Last year the city hired Sturgeon as its health inspector to create a restaurant inspection program in the public health division. Sturgeon is the only person responsible for inspecting the city’s 800 restaurants.
She said the number of restaurants inspected in the past year has been low because she has had to establish the program, do educational outreach with restaurant owners, help align city ordinances with state health codes and get up to speed with Portland’s restaurants.
She said it can take two to four hours to inspect a restaurant for the first time.
“She’s spending a lot of time in these establishments,” said Douglas Gardner, the city’s director of health and human services.
Sturgeon said she isn’t surprised by the high failure rate, mostly because of a general lack of understanding about the state food code.
“It’s not unique to Portland,” she said. “It’s the whole state, as far as education goes.”
Sturgeon has been focusing her inspections on restaurants that have drawn complaints and those that are new or under new ownership.
As of Tuesday, 16 of her inspections had been based on complaints, and 20 had been for new owners or restaurants.
Sturgeon said a restaurant could have 13 violations, including three or fewer critical infractions, and pass inspection. A critical violation is defined by state law as likely to pose a risk for contamination or illness, or an imminent health risk.
If more than 13 violations are cited, she said, the restaurant fails. It may remain open if enough violations can be corrected immediately. If they can’t, she said, the restaurant is deemed a health hazard and must close until the violations are corrected.
Three restaurants have been closed in the last year because of violations, including the Porthole, which was shut for three days last week for a “serious rat infestation,” among many other violations.
Buffalo Wings-N-Things was deemed an imminent health hazard on Aug. 31, after an inspection prompted by a complaint received the previous day from someone who claimed to have gotten sick after eating fried chicken that was red inside.
Sturgeon wrote in the report that she couldn’t confirm the complaint, but she noted “improper cooling of chicken.”
The four-page inspection report details 23 violations, including eight critical. It notes the presence of flies, door gaps in need of sealing, and a need for “major cleaning.”
Smoking apparently was allowed on the restaurant’s patio, in violation of state law, and two Raid cans were discovered inside, according to the report. “No self-application of pesticide,” Sturgeon noted.
No one answered the phone at Buffalo Wings-N-Things on Thursday. An answering machine said the restaurant was closed. The business sign outside has been taken down, and the windows have been covered with paper.
Passage to India was deemed a health hazard and closed in November, after an inspection prompted by a complaint. A copy of the complaint form was not included with the report.
The four-page report notes 28 violations, including eight critical. The critical violations included a moldy ice machine and other dirty appliances, employees not wearing hair restraints, and pots and boxes of oil on the floor. A pest inspection also was needed, according to the report.
The restaurant failed a follow-up inspection seven days after the initial report but was allowed to reopen with conditions. That inspection noted 16 violations, including flies. Three violations were corrected immediately. Eight were repeats from the previous inspection, including undated/unlabeled food and dirty cutting boards.
The restaurant failed another follow-up inspection, on Dec. 3. Ten violations were noted, seven of which were repeat violations, including a blocked hand-washing station, using wet cloths without sanitizer, food stored on the floor and a moldy ice machine.
A follow-up inspection was scheduled for June, but there is no record that it occurred.
Mohamed Hosain, owner of Passage to India, said Thursday that the restaurant, where he said business has been slow, has corrected the issues identified by the inspection reports.
“Everything now is OK,” he said.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: