January 31

Our View: Local oversight won’t ease concerns about Maine restaurant safety

A state with a big tourist industry shouldn’t shirk its responsibility to ensure that the food supply is safe.

Someone going out to eat weighs lots of factors – the state of his finances, his desire to dress up, his preferences in cuisine – in choosing a destination. One thing, though, should never be in question: whether a given restaurant is a safe place to dine.

click image to enlarge

Tom Williams, a health inspector for the city of Portland, uses a thermometer to check the temperature of standing vegetables in the kitchen of a Portland restaurant last week. Portland is one of just five Maine communities allowed to conduct its own inspections; other municipalities rely on a limited staff of state inspectors. To protect public health and ensure food safety, the state should expand the ranks of its inspectors.

2014 File Photo/Gabe Souza

Unfortunately, restaurant patrons can’t always count on that. In fact, Maine lawmakers reduced the mandated frequency of state inspections even as complaints about sanitation or food-borne illnesses increased.

Now a proposal to increase restaurant oversight is back before the Legislature after being rejected last session. L.D. 1592 – which would give local health officers the authority to conduct limited inspections – is well-meant, but it’s not a solution.

In a state with a significant tourism industry, we should be willing to dedicate enough people and money to ensure the safety of anyone who sits down to a meal at a Maine restaurant.

Portland, South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon are allowed to conduct their own inspections, employing state-certified inspectors and basing their judgments on the state food code. To cover the rest of Maine, only 11 inspectors are available.

In 2011, the burden on the small state staff prompted legislators to pass a bill doubling the time between mandatory inspections from one to two years. But the rise in complaints – up 87 percent from 2008 to 2013, including a 35 percent jump after the frequency of inspections was reduced – is a sign that the diminished system isn’t working.

Expecting local health officers to learn and uphold state standards will just aggravate the inspection system’s inconsistency. And giving more towns inspection authority won’t help, either. Becoming a delegated inspection authority is a long, costly process that doesn’t make fiscal sense for places that may have just a few dining venues.

Maine once employed 20 inspectors who visited each restaurant once a year. It’s unrealistic to expect to restore that level of attention all at once, but Maine should move in that direction as quickly as possible.

To do otherwise is to gamble that no Maine restaurant will experience a major, well-publicized episode of food-borne illness. That’s a big risk to take in an age when people across the country can read about a bad meal served here in the time it takes to post a negative review on Yelp.

Moreover, the state needs to live up to its responsibilities. Ensuring food safety is critical to protecting public health, and it’s unfair to ask Maine towns to take on this task when the state is better equipped to carry it out.

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