September 25, 2012

Portland's high standards causing failed inspections, restaurants say

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The head of the Maine Restaurant Association and local restaurant owners say that new, higher standards set by the city's health inspector are causing many of them to fail health inspections.

click image to enlarge

The Kon Asian Bistro in Portland is one of many restaurants that has failed a recent health inspection, with the inspector finding 31 violations, including 14 critical ones. “We will cooperate with the city," manager Chris Chan said. “Whatever they want us to do, we will try our best.”

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

In this May 2011 file photo, Travis Curran of Otto Pizza tosses pizza pies as Nick Belkas adds the special eclectic toppings that attracted the attention of the Food Network. Otto is one of many restaurants that failed a recent health inspection by Portland, but it passed its follow-up inspection, unlike many others.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Related headlines

Portland Eating Establishments
Click on name to read restaurant inspection
Applebee's - Failed
Buffalo Wings-N-Things - Failed
Burger King, Forest Ave. - Passed
Casablanca - Passed
Chiang Mai Two - Passed
Clarion Hotel - Failed, Passed Follow-up
D'Angelo's - Failed
Diamond Cove General Store - Failed
DiMillo's - Passed*
Dunkin Donuts, 1199 Congress - Passed
Dunkin Donuts, 363 Fore - Passed
Embassy Suites - Failed
Emilitsa - Failed
Fishermen's Grill - Failed
Five Guys - Passed
Four-Star China Taste - Failed
Haggerty's - Failed, Passed Follow-up
Hugo's - Failed
Kon Asian Bistro - Failed
Lang's Express - Failed
Little Lads Bakery - Failed
Marcy's - Failed, Passed Follow-up
Miyake - Failed
New Venue - Passed
Nosh - Failed
Ottos, 576 Congress - Failed, Passed Follow-up
Pan Mei Miyake - Failed, Passed Follow-up
Passage to India - Failed
Pat's Meat Market - Failed
Petite Jacqueline - Failed
Portland Museum of Art Café - Failed
Preble Street Resource Center - Failed
Sabor Latino - Failed
Salads Etc. - Failed
Schulte & Herr - Passed
Stareast Café - Failed
Susan's - Failed, Passed Follow-up
The Porthole - Failed
The Thirsty Pig - Failed
Through the Woods at Riverside - Passed
Tim Hortons - Failed
Tortilla Flats - Failed, Passed Follow-up
Tu Casa - Failed
Valley Chinese - Failed
Vignola Cinque Terra - Failed
Waddapita - Failed
West End Deli - Failed
Wild Burritos - Failed, Passed Follow-up
Wok Inn - Failed
Woodfords Club - Passed
* State restaurant inspection

Portland officials, however, say they have not raised the bar and that most of the inspections done recently were in response to complaints and new businesses opening.

In the past year, the city failed 39 of the 49 eateries it inspected because of health code violations, according to records provided to the Portland Press Herald this week in response to a Freedom of Access request. It is difficult to compare that rate to previous years because of limitations in the city's recordkeeping.

"The food code hasn't changed, so what has?" asked Dick Grotton, the association's president and chief executive officer. "The inspection process has changed."

In August 2011, the city hired its first health inspector devoted to restaurants. Before that, code officers in the Planning Department conducted the inspections.

The change has led to a new interpretation of the food code, Grotton insisted.

"It doesn't mean it's wrong," he said. "It's different. We need to catch up, and it's going to take time."

Grotton said Portland restaurants, many of which are in old buildings, are being cited for facility issues, such as not having a covered trash recetacle in the ladies room.

Instead of focusing on what are considered non-critical violations, he said, the city should concentrate on critical violations that could lead to illness.

"There are degrees of bad," he said. "We need to separate what's really important and what's just part of the code."

Michele Sturgeon, the health inspector, was not available for comment Friday. She has been directed to refer all media inquiries to her supervisors.

Douglas Gardner, Portland's director of health and human services, said the inspection process is no more stringent than when it was located in the Planning Department.

"I don't think it's a function of being stricter," Gardner said. "I really think the failure rate we're seeing is driven by the types of inspections we're doing."

Gardner said Sturgeon has focused on investigating complaints made against restaurants and inspecting new establishments as well as those under new ownership so they can open. A review of the records shows that 16 of her first 49 inspections had been based on complaints, and 20 had been based on a change in ownership or the opening of a new restaurant.

Gardner said the city also switched to a pass-fail grading system, rather than a scoring system based on a 100-point scale, when Sturgeon came on board. That could also be contributing to the failure rate, he said.

"I don't feel that (failure rate) is a representative example of the 700 or so other restaurants in the community," Gardner said.

A restaurant can have as many as 13 violations, including three or fewer critical, and pass inspection. A critical violation is defined as one likely to pose a risk for contamination or illness or is an imminent health risk. A restaurant with more than 13 violations fails but may stay open if enough violations can be corrected immediately. If they can't, the restaurant is deemed a health hazard and shut.

The city has closed five businesses in the past several months for health violations: Passage to India, Buffalo Wings-N-Things, and three that share a kitchen on Custom House Wharf -- the Porthole, Comedy Connection and Harbour's Edge banquet hall. All but Buffalo Wings-N-Things have reopened.

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