May 21, 2013

Officials plan to act on Maine restaurant oversight

Legislators will look into fixes after the Sunday Telegram reported that the state's inspection program is one of the least rigorous in America.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – State legislators said Monday they will consider increasing the frequency of restaurant inspections and hiring more inspectors a day after the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reported that Maine has one of the least rigorous restaurant inspection programs in the nation, both in terms of frequency and making information available to the public.

click image to enlarge

Scott Davis, a health inspector with the state of Maine, looks over a food prep area in the kitchen at the Stage Neck Inn in York during an inspection on Thursday, March 14, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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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

Complaints about restaurant cleanliness were on the rise in 2011 when lawmakers decreased the required frequency of routine kitchen inspections from once a year to once every two years. The change was made because the program did not have the staffing to comply with the annual requirement.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Monday through a spokeswoman that the Legislature should address the program's shortcomings during the next session. Eves will call on lawmakers to reconsider the frequency of inspections and consider hiring more inspectors, Jodi Quintero said.

"The results contained in the coverage certainly raise some very serious concerns and it's an issue that should be addressed in the future," she said.

Eves served on the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee in 2011 and voted in favor of reducing the frequency of restaurant inspections.

Restaurant health complaints, such as food-borne illnesses or unsanitary conditions, rose 34 percent, from 160 to 215, in 2012, the first year of the new law. Complaints have nearly doubled since 2008, which produced 115 complaints.

Eves' vote in support of the change came with reservations, said Quintero, but the bill seemed like the only way to bring the understaffed department into compliance with the law because recent budgets have been so tight. The state has 11 health inspectors responsible for overseeing roughly 8,500 establishments, including restaurants, lodging facilities, body art studios and summer camps.

"What your article revealed is those concerns are bearing out," she said. "This is another reason why we need to properly fund our government -- to ensure our food is safe."

At least one legislator is already preparing a bill for the next legislative session. Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, plans to sponsor a bill to allow local health officers to conduct health inspections to supplement those done by the state.

Cooper proposed a similar bill this session, but it was killed this month. She said the findings of the Press Herald/Telegram report compelled her to make another proposal.

Cooper said she learned from the newspaper report that having inspections every two years "is really not the norm and not an effective way to monitor food safety."

She said administrators told legislators that the Health Inspection Program is working just fine and they never mentioned the increase in complaints about restaurants.

"It just doesn't add up," she said.

Municipalities are already required to have a local health officer, Cooper said. She wants local officers to be allowed to do inspections "to check for the obvious problems" and be able to shut down restaurants, if needed. Their decisions then could be upheld or overturned by state inspectors.

"Otherwise you have to wait two years, and that's appalling, really," she said.

Yarmouth required annual inspections by its local health officer in order for restaurants to keep their victualer's license from the town. But a law enacted last year prohibits local health officers from conducting health inspections unless delegated to do so by the state. The state allows only inspectors trained to its standards to inspect restaurants.

Since then, the town has stopped requiring restaurants to get victualer's licenses because the inspections were the only basis for whether to award them, said Town Manager Nat Tupper.

"The Legislature basically took this out of our hands," he said of the local oversight.

(Continued on page 2)

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