A state panel has delayed work on a bill that would increase oversight of restaurant kitchens to allow supporters and opponents to negotiate a compromise.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, would require the state to set up a restaurant inspection training program for local health officers and then allow them to conduct limited inspections. Now, only the state can inspect restaurant kitchens, with the exception of certain communities that qualify for delegated authority.

The bill was strongly opposed last week by industry groups during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, but a representative of the Maine Municipal Association asked the committee for time to try to find a compromise.

“We rescheduled (the work session) while there is some work being done behind the scenes,” Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who co-chairs the committee, said in an email.

Kate Dufour of the MMA said the two sides have yet to meet. The MMA is committed to exploring whether there is a middle ground between what is currently an “all or nothing” process, she said.

“We are invested in exploring whether there is a role for municipalities to play in the process that would not require undertaking the delegation process,” Dufour said in an email.

The committee plans to take up the bill, L.D. 1592, on Feb. 20.

Currently only state-certified health inspectors can inspect restaurants. Communities can be delegated inspection authority by the state provided they undergo a rigorous – and some say costly – training program.

Only five communities conduct their own inspections: Portland, South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon.

Municipalities are required by law to have a local health officer on staff, but those health officers are not allowed to conduct restaurant inspections.

The Legislature stripped local health officers of that authority in 2011 as a way to improve the consistency of inspections.

At the same time, the Legislature changed the frequency of mandatory restaurant health inspections from once a year to once every two years. The change was made because the state staff of 11 inspectors, each of whom is responsible for roughly 700 establishments, could not keep up with their workloads.

A Portland Press Herald/ Maine Sunday Telegram review of restaurant inspection records found, among other things, that those changes were made at a time when consumer complaints were on the rise.

Last year, the state received 423 complaints from people who said they had gotten sick or observed unsanitary practices in a restaurant. The tally in 2012 was 367 complaints, continuing an upward trend that dates back to 2008, when the state received 115 complaints.

 

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

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Twitter: @randybillings