PORTLAND – State legislators said Monday they will consider increasing the frequency of restaurant inspections and hiring more inspectors a day after the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reported that Maine has one of the least rigorous restaurant inspection programs in the nation, both in terms of frequency and making information available to the public.

Complaints about restaurant cleanliness were on the rise in 2011 when lawmakers decreased the required frequency of routine kitchen inspections from once a year to once every two years. The change was made because the program did not have the staffing to comply with the annual requirement.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Monday through a spokeswoman that the Legislature should address the program’s shortcomings during the next session. Eves will call on lawmakers to reconsider the frequency of inspections and consider hiring more inspectors, Jodi Quintero said.

“The results contained in the coverage certainly raise some very serious concerns and it’s an issue that should be addressed in the future,” she said.

Eves served on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee in 2011 and voted in favor of reducing the frequency of restaurant inspections.

Restaurant health complaints, such as food-borne illnesses or unsanitary conditions, rose 34 percent, from 160 to 215, in 2012, the first year of the new law. Complaints have nearly doubled since 2008, which produced 115 complaints.

Eves’ vote in support of the change came with reservations, said Quintero, but the bill seemed like the only way to bring the understaffed department into compliance with the law because recent budgets have been so tight. The state has 11 health inspectors responsible for overseeing roughly 8,500 establishments, including restaurants, lodging facilities, body art studios and summer camps.

“What your article revealed is those concerns are bearing out,” she said. “This is another reason why we need to properly fund our government — to ensure our food is safe.”

At least one legislator is already preparing a bill for the next legislative session. Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, plans to sponsor a bill to allow local health officers to conduct health inspections to supplement those done by the state.

Cooper proposed a similar bill this session, but it was killed this month. She said the findings of the Press Herald/Telegram report compelled her to make another proposal.

Cooper said she learned from the newspaper report that having inspections every two years “is really not the norm and not an effective way to monitor food safety.”

She said administrators told legislators that the Health Inspection Program is working just fine and they never mentioned the increase in complaints about restaurants.

“It just doesn’t add up,” she said.

Municipalities are already required to have a local health officer, Cooper said. She wants local officers to be allowed to do inspections “to check for the obvious problems” and be able to shut down restaurants, if needed. Their decisions then could be upheld or overturned by state inspectors.

“Otherwise you have to wait two years, and that’s appalling, really,” she said.

Yarmouth required annual inspections by its local health officer in order for restaurants to keep their victualer’s license from the town. But a law enacted last year prohibits local health officers from conducting health inspections unless delegated to do so by the state. The state allows only inspectors trained to its standards to inspect restaurants.

Since then, the town has stopped requiring restaurants to get victualer’s licenses because the inspections were the only basis for whether to award them, said Town Manager Nat Tupper.

“The Legislature basically took this out of our hands,” he said of the local oversight.

Tupper believes restaurants need to be inspected more frequently than the state program requires, and said local health officers could be an extra set of eyes and ears. “Every two years is just inadequate,” he said.

Some argue that Cooper’s bill would have only made the process more subjective.

Dick Grotton, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association, said the state already allows towns to conduct their own restaurant inspections, provided they go through a process of adopting the state food code and receive periodic training to promote consistency. Five Maine cities, including Portland, have full inspecting authority now.

Cooper’s bill seemed to be “an end-run around” that process, Grotton said.

He said restaurant owners had little response to the newspaper report. The few members who have spoken to him said the article highlighted old problems but didn’t offer any new solutions, Grotton said.

Numerous readers, meanwhile, said they were surprised by the inspection program’s shortcomings and hoped action would be taken.

Portland resident Gwen Hiatt said she has been contacting her legislators, asking them to beef up the inspection program.

“We deserve to know what goes on behind the kitchen door,” Hiatt said. “We can’t go back and inspect the kitchen. We rely on the health inspector to keep us safe.”

Doug Nilson, a 36-year-old Yarmouth resident and emergency room physician, said it was “unbelievable” that restaurants are inspected only once every two years, and that the dining public has no access to inspection results.

Nilson also was surprised that inspectors do not have the power to close a restaurant — they can only recommend it. And if the restaurant complies, it is not required to tell the public the true reason behind the closure.

“It seems like it should be a fairly simple task to centralize all this information and to make it easily available to the public,” he said. “It seems we have a right to know our food is being prepared in an environment that doesn’t promote the spread of illnesses.”

The state says it prioritizes its work to focus on complaints and repeat offenders. But it also concedes that its database does not allow it to analyze trends or produce reports that would likely improve staff training or efficiency in the department.

Grotton said the state can keep track of bad actors without having comparative data, but a health records professional disagreed.

Will Salomon is a semiretired neonatalogist in the Androscoggin County town of Poland who holds a master’s degree in public health and has experience working with public health information systems. He believes the data would provide the state with a list of the most common — and most severe — violations.

Food-borne illness “is not a joke,” Salomon said, especially for pregnant women, who can pass illnesses onto their unborn babies.

“It’s important because it tells you where your real risk factors are,” Salomon said. “It takes the limited manpower you have and focuses their efforts.

“Someone is really missing the boat here,” he said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers contributed to this report.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at
rbillings@pressherald.com
Twitter: @randybillings


Correction: This story was updated at 9:26 a.m. May 21, 2013, to specify that Poland is in Androscoggin County, not Oxford County.