Lobbyists for Maine’s hospitality industry voiced strong opposition Tuesday to a bill that would increase oversight of restaurants by allowing local health officers to conduct limited inspections of commercial kitchens.

The Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Innkeepers Association and the Maine Tourism Association opposed the bill during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, which oversees the restaurant inspection program. The industry groups said they fear the bill would confuse restaurant owners with inconsistent rules.

The proposal also got support at Tuesday’s hearing, and the bill’s sponsor argued that the industry needs expanded oversight.

Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, said the bill is needed to protect Maine’s tourism industry, which could be “devastated” by an outbreak of a food-borne illness. “Something needs to be done to protect the public,” she said.

Testifying for the restaurant association, Richard Grotton, the group’s former chief executive officer, said millions of people eat in Maine restaurants every year, and very few have gotten seriously ill. He urged the committee to maintain the status quo, which he called “a good system.”

The state now employs 11 inspectors, each of whom is responsible for inspecting 600 to 800 establishments a year, including restaurants, tattoo parlors, summer camps and inns.

Municipalities are required to have their own health officers, but only those that have legal agreements with the state, adopt the state food code and hire state-certified inspectors are allowed to inspect restaurants.

Cooper’s bill, L.D. 1592, was submitted shortly after the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram exposed weaknesses in state and local inspection programs, including less frequent inspections and less public access to inspection results than all but two other states. The newspaper found that lawmakers reduced the mandated frequency of inspections even as complaints about sanitation or food-borne illnesses increased.

The number of restaurant-related complaints continued to rise through the fall of 2013, according to the latest records provided by the state, as the state inspectors worked to inspect restaurants once every two years. The failure rate of restaurants varied greatly by county.

Cooper presented a similar bill in the last legislative session, but it was rejected by the Health and Human Services Committee. She reintroduced it this year after the newspaper reports highlighted the rising number of complaints and less rigorous oversight than in other states.

Grotton accused the newspaper, which based its reporting on statistics provided by the state, of overplaying the public health threat because that “makes headlines.”

“I have no faith whatsoever in the press reporting,” he said. “Unfortunately, reporters really don’t understand the food service industry or the inspection process.”

Maine’s inspection program is a shell of what it was in the late 1980s, said Peter Manning, a former legislator who served on the committee for 12 years.

Manning said the state employed 20 inspectors and had local health officers who were allowed in kitchens. Back then, he said, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggested that larger, year-round restaurants be inspected twice a year. Now, restaurants are inspected only once every two years simply because there aren’t enough inspectors.

During his first year in office, Manning said, he and several other lawmakers got sick from eating out. He spent several days in the hospital and was out of work for months.

Manning testified neither for nor against Cooper’s bill, calling instead for the Legislature to expand the state’s staff of 11 inspectors so the program can increase the frequency of inspections.

“Two years is far too long,” he said. “There isn’t much that a lot of your constituents really ask for. But they ask for clean restaurants and they expect, if they go into a restaurant … that there’s some assurance that it’s healthy, that it’s clean.”

Cooper said there is no state money to add inspectors. She offered to remove a provision of the bill that would allow a local health officer to temporarily close a restaurant for violations – power that not even state health inspectors have. Under the amendment, local health officers would have to report their findings to the state, which would be responsible for enforcement.

Anita Anderson, a former state health inspector who works as a health officer for four communities, described local health officers as the eyes and ears for state inspectors.

Nathaniel Tupper, Yarmouth’s town manager, submitted testimony in support of the bill. He has said the town wants inspection authority so it can ensure that commercial kitchens get inspected more frequently.

Becoming a delegated inspection authority is a long and costly process for a municipality, said Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association, who offered to work with both sides to craft a compromise bill.

“Right now, we essentially have an all-or-nothing system,” Dufour said. “We would dedicate time and energy to figure out whether we could thread this needle.”

The committee will hold a work session on the bill Feb. 4.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings