There are almost 3,000 food and beverage establishments in Maine. Several hundred of these restaurants proudly serve the citizens of and visitors to Portland and work diligently to ensure food safety for the dining public.

We are proud of our food safety record in Maine and concerned regarding the recent press accounts of the city of Portland’s restaurant inspection process.

We think Portland restaurants deserve a more consistent inspection and follow-up than they have experienced in the past few years.

We appreciate and agree with City Manager Mark Rees’ assessment that additional inspection services are needed. One inspector assigned to this task must be totally overwhelmed.

We do not take food safety lightly. The Maine Restaurant Association has been a leader in advancing and supporting science-based food safety initiatives since our inception in 1953. In our view, food safety is job one in Maine restaurants.

Last year our association supported the adoption of the Certified Food Protection Manager requirement for every restaurant. The certification is an effort to ensure that those responsible for food safety in Maine restaurants fully understand the process of safe food handling and that they in turn train other staff members to keep all kitchens clean and in good repair.

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The process of food service inspection is not as black and white as might be expected. It is a highly subjective process requiring prudent judgment and a healthy dose of common sense.

All inspectors: food, plumbing, fire, electrical, etc. bring their individual perspectives to their jobs.

Based on individual experience, the inspector of today may well arrive at a different conclusion on a specific report from the inspector of next week.

The Maine Food Code is sufficiently detailed that an inspector can find violations in almost any establishment if they wish. This is precisely why food inspection letter or numeric scores have been largely dismissed in favor of a pass/fail grading system.

Violations on inspection reports are separated into critical and non-critical areas. Critical violations are those that could cause food-borne illness, such as improper cooking or holding temperatures or cross-contamination issues.

Non-critical violations involve issues that need correction but have relatively little bearing on food safety, such as a box of Band-Aids left on a kitchen counter or a missing cover on a wastebasket in the ladies room.

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Most restaurants in Maine, and particularly in Portland, are located in buildings not originally constructed to be restaurants.

They were originally built as private homes, railroad stations, banks, car ferries, warehouses, even fish factories. They are not “cookie cutter” modern restaurants built from the ground up to serve one distinct menu.

That unique character is precisely what attracts visitors from across the nation to visit Maine. It is part of what entices top chefs to live and work here and it is clearly a significant factor in the growth of “Foodie Portland.”

Working with older buildings is a challenge for both the food service operator and the inspector.

Older structures may have been successfully rehabilitated to meet the code requirements of 15 or 20 years ago, but may not be readily adaptable as codes change over time.

Most restaurants operate seven days a week, often serving three meals each day. Our buildings take a beating as thousands of guests walk our floors each year. Cleaning, painting and repairing the property is a constant effort.

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If we prize our Portland restaurants as interesting, unique and often amazing dining venues, then we must also understand that a certain amount of common sense must be applied when we review the Food Code and apply those standards to the city’s restaurants.

It isn’t always readily achievable or even possible to exactly meet every requirement of the very complex 100-page Food Code in the leased space of an older building.

Even though we often create great restaurants in older buildings, it is clearly necessary that we do not permit any practice that could threaten food safety.

Restaurants must be clean and the person in charge of the kitchen must be knowledgeable and fastidious in following safe food- handling practices. That is our responsibility as an industry.

There are 970,000 restaurants in the United States, the second-largest private sector employers in the nation behind health care, providing 12.9 million jobs and safely serving 1.7 billion meals a year!

Every year we proudly serve several million of those safe, delicious meals right here in Portland.

Bon appetit!

Richard Grotton is president of the Maine Restaurant Association.

 


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