Cities, states are falling behind on food safety inspections
Friday, December 09, 2016
Chicago is a foodie city. It's hard to go wrong with your restaurant choice here. But a recent report released by the city's Office of Inspector General shows that most restaurants and other food establishments may be overdue for a health inspection.
And the Windy City is not the only one — a growing number of cities are falling behind in their food safety inspections. In Chicago, more than half of the city's high-risk food establishments have missed their mandatory second inspection. These are not just restaurants, but also day care centers, schools and hospital kitchens. Not only is public health at risk but also continued state funding.
The key reason is insufficient resources, but city inspectors are trying their best. While the need to inspect and audit is paramount, their lean teams have made it difficult to stick to deadlines.
Inspectors are trying to overcome these obstacles by using tools like predictive analytics and focus more on the highest-risk establishments. These are typically places like restaurants, hospital kitchens and school cafeterias, where food is prepared on site.
Legally, they need to be inspected no less than twice a year. There is also the 311 hotline for public safety complaints which helps them zero in on more urgently-needed inspections and thus respond quicker.
An audit released by the Oregon Secretary of State determined the entire state is running behind schedule for conducting food safety inspections. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is in charge of inspecting the 12,000 grocery stores and food manufacturers. The report shows that they are at least three months behind schedule for nearly 25 percent of them.
Lack of resources is a recurring underlying problem here, too, but the state is also witnessing a high staff turnover, which is a cause for concern. While the number of licensed food businesses has grown by a third over the past decade, the number of inspectors hasn't. As a result, they have been unable to keep up with the inspection schedule.
The same can be said of the county health departments which are responsible for inspecting restaurants. Added to these increasing workloads are other issues like management oversight and inefficient use of data, all of which needs to be tackled right away.
A closer look shows this is not a sudden phenomenon. Chicago has not been in compliance with Illinois state law for several years, as per the audit. This raises serious questions about public health and hygiene. A higher risk of food-borne illness undermines not only public health but also public trust in the city.
Inspection of retail food establishments is mandatory, and not complying could cost the city dearly. The violations could amount to a loss of state grants, as much as $2.5 million. A mayoral spokesperson said the state does not give the city enough money to meet these inspection schedules and requirements.
Officials say 56 new food safety inspectors need to be hired right away for the city to comply with state law. It currently has only 38 food inspectors on staff. The audit pointed out, however, that the city had performed well when it came to responding to complaints, despite the shortage of staff.
As mentioned before, they used smart tools to look into urgent complaints within five days. These are issues where the risk of "significant food-borne illness" were high. The less urgent ones were seen within a month. $2.8 million have been collected in food-safety citation fees by the city.
If the state and all departments work in conjunction, the inspection standards can be brought back up and quickly.
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