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

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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

Tupper believes restaurants need to be inspected more frequently than the state program requires, and said local health officers could be an extra set of eyes and ears. "Every two years is just inadequate," he said.

Some argue that Cooper's bill would have only made the process more subjective.

Dick Grotton, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association, said the state already allows towns to conduct their own restaurant inspections, provided they go through a process of adopting the state food code and receive periodic training to promote consistency. Five Maine cities, including Portland, have full inspecting authority now.

Cooper's bill seemed to be "an end-run around" that process, Grotton said.

He said restaurant owners had little response to the newspaper report. The few members who have spoken to him said the article highlighted old problems but didn't offer any new solutions, Grotton said.

Numerous readers, meanwhile, said they were surprised by the inspection program's shortcomings and hoped action would be taken.

Portland resident Gwen Hiatt said she has been contacting her legislators, asking them to beef up the inspection program.

"We deserve to know what goes on behind the kitchen door," Hiatt said. "We can't go back and inspect the kitchen. We rely on the health inspector to keep us safe."

Doug Nilson, a 36-year-old Yarmouth resident and emergency room physician, said it was "unbelievable" that restaurants are inspected only once every two years, and that the dining public has no access to inspection results.

Nilson also was surprised that inspectors do not have the power to close a restaurant -- they can only recommend it. And if the restaurant complies, it is not required to tell the public the true reason behind the closure.

"It seems like it should be a fairly simple task to centralize all this information and to make it easily available to the public," he said. "It seems we have a right to know our food is being prepared in an environment that doesn't promote the spread of illnesses."

The state says it prioritizes its work to focus on complaints and repeat offenders. But it also concedes that its database does not allow it to analyze trends or produce reports that would likely improve staff training or efficiency in the department.

Grotton said the state can keep track of bad actors without having comparative data, but a health records professional disagreed.

Will Salomon is a semiretired neonatalogist in the Androscoggin County town of Poland who holds a master's degree in public health and has experience working with public health information systems. He believes the data would provide the state with a list of the most common -- and most severe -- violations.

Food-borne illness "is not a joke," Salomon said, especially for pregnant women, who can pass illnesses onto their unborn babies.

"It's important because it tells you where your real risk factors are," Salomon said. "It takes the limited manpower you have and focuses their efforts.

"Someone is really missing the boat here," he said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers contributed to this report.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at
Twitter: @randybillings

Correction: This story was updated at 9:26 a.m. May 21, 2013, to specify that Poland is in Androscoggin County, not Oxford County.


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