January 28

Restaurant inspections a hot item in Augusta

The industry adamantly opposes a bill that would revive a system that gives all municipalities an oversight role.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Legislature may step up oversight of restaurant safety by allowing cities and towns to do their own kitchen inspections, but the effort faces strong opposition from an industry group.

click image to enlarge

Portland Health Inspector Tom Williams inspects the kitchen of Buck’s Naked BBQ on Wharf Street on Friday. Buck's Naked BBQ passed its inspection.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Portland Health Inspector Tom Williams, front, inspects the kitchen of Buck’s Naked BBQ on Wharf Street on Friday. Watching are restaurant owner Alex Caisse, left, and Al Brown, operations manager. Portland is one of just five communities allowed to conduct its own inspections.
This caption was updated at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26, to correct the name of the owner of Buck's Naked BBQ.

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The bill comes after the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram exposed weaknesses in state and local inspection programs, including less frequent inspections and less public access to inspection results than all but two other states. The paper found that lawmakers reduced the mandated frequency of inspections even as complaints about sanitation or food-borne illnesses were on the rise.

The number of restaurant-related complaints continued to rise through the fall of 2013 – according to the latest records provided by the state – as the limited staff of state inspectors worked to inspect restaurants once every two years.

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday will hold a public hearing on L.D. 1592, a bill sponsored by Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, that would allow municipal health inspectors to conduct unannounced restaurant inspections and close down eateries with glaring health violations.

Cooper submitted a similar bill last session, but it was killed by the committee. Cooper blamed the bill’s failure on state inspection officials, who “misled” the committee by saying the program was doing a “bang-up job.”

“I believe they snookered the committee,” Cooper said.

The bill faces opposition from the Maine Restaurant Association, which has successfully advocated for business-friendly rules.

“We are absolutely, 100 percent opposed to this,” said Greg Dugal, the group’s new chief executive officer.

Maine’s inspection program is thinly staffed. Only 11 people are responsible for inspecting nearly 5,000 establishments, and hundreds of other lodging and tattoo facilities, forcing inspectors to take a reactive approach, prioritizing complaints by customers who may have gotten sick.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, initially expressed “serious concerns” about the newspaper’s findings and said he’d consider increasing the frequency of inspections and adding inspectors.

STARTING POINT FOR DISCUSSION

While there is no bill that would do that, Eves spokeswoman Jodi Quintero said Cooper’s bill will likely be a starting point for discussion.

“The speaker believes Rep. Cooper’s bill addresses one aspect of the problem,” Quintero said in an email. “The bill is likely to change and evolve as the committee hears input from the public and stakeholders.”

In response to an interview request, Lisa Roy, manager of the state’s health inspection program, said it doesn’t typically comment on a bill until after the public hearing. She did not respond to a request for comment regarding Cooper’s assertion that the committee was misled.

But John Martins, the spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the restaurant inspection program, did respond. “We respectfully disagree with the sponsor’s assessment of our interactions,” he said.

The state currently allows five municipalities – Portland, South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon – to employ their own state-certified inspectors to inspect local restaurants under DHHS oversight.

The Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram created an online database of Portland’s restaurant inspection results. After restaurants began receiving more scrutiny, the city followed suit and became the first community in the state to begin posting inspection results and reports online. The city also increased staffing.

Last week, in his State of the City address, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan called the changes a “very important improvement.”

Except for Portland, Maine inspection results are neither made available online nor used as the basis of cleanliness grades that get posted for prospective diners. Nearly all other states provide more public access to inspection results.

Meredith Harrell, a longtime Portland restaurant patron, was one of many readers who were taken aback by the state and local restaurant inspection programs. She wants frequent inspections and publicly posted results.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Portland Health Inspector Tom Williams uses a thermometer on Friday to check the temperature of standing vegetables at Buck’s Naked BBQ on Wharf Street. A bill would give all Maine communities freedom to inspect restaurants.

  


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