AUGUSTA – The restaurant inspection process has recently come under fire in press reports critical of the current minimum two-year inspection requirement (“Oversight of Maine restaurants diminishes, just as complaints rise,” May 19).
Until late in 2011, state statute required that an inspection be done every year. But regardless of the requirement set out in the statute, the state Health Inspection Program has simply never had the resources required to meet that protocol.
Because of that lack of resources, the state Health Inspection Program requested that the Legislature reduce the requirement to once every other year, in an effort to have the statute reflect a more attainable goal.
The recent press reports seem to make the determination that there is a correlation between an increase in citizen complaints to the Health Inspection Program in 2012, and the reduction in the frequency of required restaurant inspections late in 2011.
Here are some restaurant inspection facts that were missed in the lengthy press article:
• During 2012, with more than 3,300 completed inspections, 95 percent of Maine restaurants passed their inspection, with only 5 percent requiring follow-up.
We believe that the protection of the public health in restaurants is the key issue, not inspection frequency.
In 2010, 2011 and 2012 combined, the Maine Center for Disease Control’s Infectious Disease Program received only three reports of food-borne illness involving restaurants. With literally millions of meals served during that period, it would appear that restaurants are doing an exemplary job in food safety.
• Press accounts of the inspection process also failed to mention a critical adjunct to restaurant inspections: the state requirement that every licensed eating place employ a certified food protection manager.
This is an individual who has completed an approved course of study in food safety and sanitation, such as the nationally recognized ServSafe Food Manager Certification Course, and passed an examination approved by the Conference Standards for Accreditation of Food Protection Manager Certification Programs.
Citing a 2009 study, Michael Taylor, the Food and Drug Administration’s commissioner for foods, commented, “In looking at the data, it is quite clear that having a certified food protection manager on the job makes a difference.”
The FDA study found that the presence of a certified food protection manager correlated with a statistically higher compliance level with food safety practices.
In keeping with our absolute commitment to food safety, the Maine Restaurant Association supported the new requirement for a certified food protection manager in every Maine restaurant, and it began in January 2011 with a one-year phase-in period.
The program is viewed as highly successful, with Maine moving from a zero baseline with this new program to having 2,312 registered certified food protection managers in just one year.
Clearly, restaurants are highly motivated to do the right thing to keep the food they serve safe for the dining public. The restaurant industry understands that we are responsible for the safety of the food chain. We are the first line of defense, not the state inspection program.
Over the past three years, the Maine Restaurant Association has worked in concert with the state Health Inspection Program to craft a four-year, stepped process of expanded license fees on all inspected establishments.
The additional fees became effective for fiscal year 2011 and will slowly increase funding for the effort to add technological solutions to the inspection process and improve inspection frequency without adding to the tax burden.
Would more resources improve the program? Of course. However, while waiting for those resources, we believe the program is clearly on the right track and enjoys excellent management, dedicated to moving the program forward.
While the press seems overly concerned with restaurant inspections, little attention is being paid to legislation before the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee that would allow the public sale of home-cooked goods prepared in family kitchens without benefit of any inspection whatsoever.
Oddly, at a time when food safety appears to be of premium importance to most, and the inspection frequency of food establishments questioned, legislation permitting food processing and sale from a home kitchen, without any inspection or training, appears headed for passage!
Dick Grotton is president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association.