May 19, 2013

Oversight of Maine restaurants diminishes, just as complaints rise

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 3)

Today's poll: Restaurants

How concerned are you about the safety of restaurant food in Maine?

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Scott Davis, a state health inspector, checks a walk-in cooler at the Stage Neck Inn in York Harbor. The Legislature scaled back the frequency of restaurant inspections to once every two years, making Maine’s rule among the most lax in the nation. Many other states require multiple inspections each year.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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CONSUMER RESOURCES

IF YOU THINK you got sick from eating out or want to lodge a complaint about safety or cleanliness, call the Health Inspection Program at 287-5671. In a case of illness, you can also call the state’s Emergency Consultation and Disease Reporting Line at (800) 821-5821.

RESTAURANT INSPECTION reports may be requested by contacting the state or asking the restaurant.

INSPECTION REPORTS reports for restaurants located in Portland, South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon may be viewed at the municipality’s town hall.

PORTLAND RESTAURANT inspections may be viewed online at bit.ly/QwSn0l

Last fall the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigated Portland's restaurant inspections, and found that the city inspected only 49 of its roughly 700 eating establishments during the one-year period from August 2011 to August 2012.

The Legislature changed the law to make the annual inspection requirement once every two years as part of a bill that also reduced the number of inspections required for youth, summer and sports camps.

The bill, "An Act to Amend Laws Governing Licensure Compliance Methods for Camping Areas, Recreational Camps, Youth Camps, and Eating Establishments," was unanimously voted out of the Health and Human Services Committee on its way to becoming state law.

Two legislators who served on the committee recalled the bill as focusing mostly on summer camps, most of which are nationally accredited through a process that made the state inspection requirement seem redundant.

Legislators had difficulty recollecting the bill's effect on restaurants, which unlike youth camps, do not have a fallback accreditation process.

Former Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland, who co-chaired the committee and sponsored the bill, said the changes seemed to be a good way to bring the state into compliance with law, while enacting a business-friendly bill that reduced "over-regulation."

"There was no pushback," said Strang Burgess, who did not seek re-election last year. "It seemed to be logical."

In written testimony submitted to the committee, Nancy Beardsley, director of the Division for Environmental Health in the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, said the changes in inspection frequency better reflected the reality.

Beardsley noted that inspectors respond to as many as 400 complaints a year, including 100 food-borne illness investigations, but legislators could not recall a discussion about the impact of reducing the frequency of restaurant inspections would have on public health.

"With a full contingent of health inspectors, it is more realistic that inspections of all licensed establishments could be performed every two years," Beardsley wrote at the time.

Strang Burgess was surprised to hear during a recent interview that complaints were rising at the time the law passed and rose by nearly 35 percent in 2012 (from 160 to 215) -- the first year the new law was in effect.

Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, who still serves on the committee, was also surprised. Both he and Strang Burgess said it was appropriate to question whether there was a link between the law change and the spike in complaints.

"I would like to know whether there is a correlation," Stuckey said.

ASSESSING INSPECTION FREQUENCY

It was not a request from the restaurant industry that led to the law change. In fact, the leader of the industry association said in a recent interview that he agrees with consumer advocates about the importance of having more frequent inspections.

Dick Grotton, the president and chief executive officer of the Maine Restaurant Association, said it's important to have a collaborative relationship between inspectors and restaurant owners, and that both have the same goal of protecting public health.

Grotton said his restaurant members complain that they pay increasing license fees but rarely see an inspector in their establishments.

Increased license fees, which range from $125 to $225, have allowed the state to increase its budget for state inspections from $1.22 million in 2008 to $1.58 million in 2012. Although that additional revenue did not lead to the hiring of additional inspectors, the number of inspections of restaurants and other establishments also has increased, from 1,446 to 3,275 in the past three years.

(Continued on page 5)

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Today's poll: Restaurants

How concerned are you about the safety of restaurant food in Maine?

Very

Somewhat

Not Very

View Results