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

(Continued from page 1)

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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.

Additional Photos Below

“I think at a minimum restaurants ought to be inspected once a year,” said Harrell, a 40-year-old mother of one. “Every restaurant that doesn’t pass its inspection ought to be listed in a public place so people can make their own decisions.”

The state continues to struggle with its record-keeping, which can transfer poor inspection histories from closed restaurants onto restaurants that open in the same space. State officials also cannot easily produce reports capable of identifying trends.

In addition, the state could not easily comply with a public records request filed on Jan. 14 by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for complete information about 2013 inspections.

But last September, Roy said in an email that consumer complaints have continued to rise. She said the state had received 379 complaints since the beginning of the year from people who had gotten sick or observed unsanitary practices in a restaurant.

That nine-month tally was more than the 367 complaints in all of 2012, continuing an upward trend that dates back to 2008, when the state received 115 complaints.

Although complaints are up, the number of restaurants failing their inspections or being closed based for imminent health hazards was down last year.

In 2013, 158 restaurants failed their inspections but just three were deemed imminent health hazards. That’s down from 2012, when 175 establishments failed and 16 were classified as public health hazards.

Local health inspectors were stripped of their authority to inspect restaurants in 2011 by the 125th Legislature.

Under Republican leadership, the Legislature enacted a number of pro-business, regulatory-reducing reforms, including doubling the amount of time between inspections from annually to every two years.

‘NOT WHERE WE WANT TO GO BACK TO’

Dugal said the restaurant association pushed hard to keep local – and often under-trained – health officers out of restaurant kitchens, so owners would not get confused by inconsistent rules and enforcement. “(Municipalities) had their own inspection regimes,” Dugal said.

The association says Cooper’s bill will be a step backward.

“That’s where we were before and that’s not where we want to go back to,” Dugal said.

Even though Cooper’s bill would require the state to offer minimal training to local health officers, Dugal said local health officers will not have enough expertise to decide whether a restaurant should be shut down.

Instead, the state should hire more state-certified health inspectors to increase oversight, Dugal said.

Cooper noted that the state inspection program is already inconsistent. While the state retrains its inspectors every three years, the Maine Sunday Telegram found that inspections are highly subjective and failure rates varied greatly by county.

For example, only one out of 334 inspections in Washington County between 2010 and 2012 failed, a failure rate of 0.3 percent.

But in Sagadahoc County, 25 out of 193 inspections failed. That’s a 13 percent failure rate – the highest in the state.

Cumberland County is not far behind with a failure rate of nearly 11 percent – 228 failed inspections out of 2,094.

Cooper suggested that inherent inconsistencies in the inspection process should not be used to avoid more oversight.

“We don’t have the money to add more (state) inspectors, so let’s use the people we have,” Cooper said.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

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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