The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Monday heard testimony about whether to beef up the state’s restaurant inspection program, which a state official says has a backlog of 1,400 overdue inspections.

The public hearing comes after the state last week announced that it would put restaurant inspections online, joining most states that already post reports online. Portland, which has its own restaurant inspection program, began posting food inspections online in 2013, after the Portland Press Herald reported on the lack of transparency and infrequency of restaurant inspections.

Since then, Portland has also increased the number of inspectors from one to 2.5 and added food safety training programs.

The bill to increase state inspectors by Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, does not indicate how many inspectors would be needed beyond the 11 currently employed by the state, but the goal is to have annual inspections rather than the current average of once every two years. The 11 inspectors also investigate summer camps, hotels, public pools and tattoo parlors.

Ken Albert, Maine Center for Disease Control director, testified that the state would need 20 more inspectors, which would cost an additional $2 million, to complete annual inspections. Employees are having a difficult time keeping up with the work at current staffing levels, said Albert, who was neutral on the bill.

“Since 2011, the current staffing levels do not support the volume and complexity of the work,” Albert said, noting that there’s a backlog of 1,400 overdue inspections.

The state currently inspects 5,700 facilities per year, he said. Unable to meet a previous state requirement to inspect establishments annually, the Legislature in 2011 voted to reduce the frequency of inspections from annually to every two years.

Greg Dugal, president and chief executive officer of the Maine Restaurant Association, told the Press Herald after Monday’s hearing that he could see a potential compromise on the issue, rather than hiring 20 more inspectors.

Dugal said he doesn’t object to having more inspections, especially for restaurants that handle food that’s more tricky to prepare, such as shellfish.

“If you’re a bed and breakfast and all you’re making is quiche and scrambled eggs, there’s not much risk and you probably don’t need to be inspected every year,” Dugal said.

But if more inspections are funded by licensing fee increases, that would be difficult for small business owners to afford.

Dugal said the increases could cause the fees, which typically range from $100 to $500 per year, to double.

Dugal said additional inspections should be paid for out of the General Fund, rather than licensing fees. Typically, about 4 percent to 6 percent of restaurants fail their inspections, according to the state.


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