May 19, 2013

Maine inspection rule among least restrictive in U.S.

But with recent cuts to health departments, rules may not reflect what's happening.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

In Virginia, the rule is for some restaurants to have four health inspections every year.

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REGIONAL INSPECTION PRACTICES

MAINE

Who inspects: State and five municipalities

How often: Every two years

Where are results: Only available by request

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Who inspects: State and 16 municipalities

How often: No statewide policy, but try for every two years; local guidelines vary

Where are results: Statewide online database isn’t working; Manchester posts online

MASSACHUSETTS

Who inspects: Municipal health officials

How often: Twice per year

Where are results: Some towns, e.g., Brookline, post scores in restaurants; Boston posts online

VERMONT

Who inspects: State

How often: No state policy, try for once per year

Where are results: Statewide online database

In Massachusetts, the standard is twice a year, a frequency considered to be the national average.

In Georgia, restaurants have to post health inspection reports next to their front doors, and in St. Louis, Mo., every restaurant must post a letter grade from its last inspection or face a $500 fine.

In Maine, meanwhile, restaurants are supposed to get routine inspections once every two years. And neither the restaurant nor the state is required to tell patrons whether a restaurant has passed or failed -- unless they ask.

Maine's requirement for inspecting restaurants once every two years is among the least restrictive policies in the nation. New Hampshire and Vermont, on the other hand, have no statewide requirements for the frequency of inspections written into law.

Both New England neighbors have at least some inspection results posted online by regulatory authorities, however. Maine is one of three states that do not.

Comparing states in regard to restaurant cleanliness, sanitation standards and transparency can be difficult. Many don't have uniform statewide policies for performing inspections or reporting results, and rules are instead set by individual counties or cities. And, regardless of what the policies require in various states, it's hard to say whether inspectors are adhering to them.

Rules for how often restaurants are inspected vary from "on a routine basis" in Vermont to four times per year in Virginia.

Within many states, inspection duties are divvied up among state, county and municipal agencies. While policies often differ from one town to the next, almost all of the agencies require at least an annual inspection, according to a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of state programs.

However, with recent cuts to health departments, the rules don't necessarily reflect what's actually happening around the country, said University of Illinois professor Mark Dworkin, who is overseeing a study on the effectiveness of frequent inspections.

"It's highly likely that there are many local health departments that cannot keep up with their policy," he said.

In Maine, five municipalities -- Portland, South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon -- do their own inspections, but the whole state follows the same general policy, which was changed last year to require biannual inspections because the agencies couldn't keep up with the annual requirement.

Falling behind on inspections is not enough reason for the New Mexico Environment Department to loosen its rules, said Steve Zappe, manager of the state's food program, which is having trouble inspecting all restaurants every year.

"We're not going there. We're not going to lower the standard," he said.

In Manchester, N.H., inspections are required every six months and inspectors don't fall behind, said Tim Soucy, health director for the state's largest city.

Manchester is one of 16 cities and towns in New Hampshire that do their own health inspections.

The rest are covered by the New Hampshire Division of Public Health, which doesn't have a strict policy but tries to inspect each restaurant at least every couple of years, said Mike Dumond, chief of the Bureau of Public Health Protection.

The state set up an online database to post inspection results, but it has been down since last fall because of technical problems, Dumond said. Manchester also has its own inspection records available online.

Most states do not post all inspection results online, but they're available in at least some city or county -- and in many cases, several of them. Three states -- Maine, Hawaii and Minnesota -- do not have any results available online, according to a list compiled by Food Safety News.

(Continued on page 2)

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