A legislative committee has asked leaders of the state’s Health Inspection Program to find out what it would cost to hire enough health inspectors to conduct annual restaurant inspections, and how high restaurant license fees would have to go to pay for the added oversight.

The Health and Human Services Committee, meanwhile, voted against a proposal to allow municipal health officers to conduct limited inspections of restaurants as a way to monitor more businesses.

Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, sponsored the bill to authorize local inspectors but said Friday she was pleased with the committee’s action.

“I’ve always said that having sufficient state inspectors would be the best option,” Cooper said. “Still, I was trying to find a less expensive way to get more feet on the ground.”

The committee asked the state inspection agency to report back on costs by the end of the year. Cooper said she would use the information to sponsor a new bill to expand restaurant oversight.

State law required annual, unannounced inspections of all restaurants until 2011. However, the state was never able to meet that goal, so the Legislature changed the law to require inspections once every two years. Unknown to lawmakers at the time, consumer complaints were on the rise even as the inspection standard was relaxed.

New state data indicate that many Maine restaurants are going more than two years between inspections.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends inspecting establishments twice a year.

The state inspection program consisted of 20 inspectors in the 1980s, according to Peter Manning, a former state legislator who served on the committee for 12 years. That staffing level has not been confirmed by state officials.

Now the state employs 11 inspectors, each of whom is responsible for 600 to 800 establishments, including restaurants, lodging facilities and tattoo parlors. The $1.58 million program has been funded solely through business licensing fees since 2009. Before that, it was paid for through the state’s General Fund.

Committee members on Thursday said they were concerned about the inspection program.

“Ultimately I believe we need to have an appropriate level of staff of state inspectors to do the job,” said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, House chairman of the committee. “I think we owe that to the tourism industry.”

Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, said he ran a child care program in Portland years ago that served food to kids. That kitchen was inspected every month, he said. “I depended on the resources of the health inspector to come to make sure the food I was serving to children was healthy,” Stuckey said.

Greg Dugal, chief executive officer of the Maine Restaurant Association, said in an interview Friday that license fees have been increasing over the last four years, allowing the state inspection program to upgrade its technology, which has led to a higher rate of inspections. Dugal hopes the state will contribute funding to increase the number of inspectors, rather than relying entirely on fees.

“I’m not opposed to annual inspections, if it’s something they can do without doubling license fees,” Dugal said.

Although the number of establishments inspected increased from 4,546 in 2012 to 5,609 in 2013, the state is not meeting its current obligation to inspect every establishment every two years.

According to the state Office of Policy and Legal Analysis, 96 establishments have no inspection recorded in the state database and another 1,414 establishments have gone more than two years without being inspected.

Stuckey called that backlog “unacceptable.”

Health Inspection Program Manager Lisa Roy was not available on Friday for comment.

However, Dugal said many of those establishments simply did not renew their licenses.

Dugal said the restaurant association is open to discussing ways to improve the state inspection system to ensure that the food being served is safe, since a case of food-borne illness is bad for the industry.

“We’re not obstructionist,” he said. “We will listen to and work with everyone.”

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings