May 19, 2013

Oversight of Maine restaurants diminishes, just as complaints rise

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Scott Davis, a state health inspector, checks a walk-in cooler at the Stage Neck Inn in York Harbor. The Legislature scaled back the frequency of restaurant inspections to once every two years, making Maine’s rule among the most lax in the nation. Many other states require multiple inspections each year.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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CONSUMER RESOURCES

IF YOU THINK you got sick from eating out or want to lodge a complaint about safety or cleanliness, call the Health Inspection Program at 287-5671. In a case of illness, you can also call the state’s Emergency Consultation and Disease Reporting Line at (800) 821-5821.

RESTAURANT INSPECTION reports may be requested by contacting the state or asking the restaurant.

INSPECTION REPORTS reports for restaurants located in Portland, South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon may be viewed at the municipality’s town hall.

PORTLAND RESTAURANT inspections may be viewed online at bit.ly/QwSn0l

Until 2012, Maine law required annual inspections of restaurants. But that was physically impossible for the small team of inspectors, which led to the quiet approval of a new law to require every-other-year inspections instead.

While apparently unknown to lawmakers at the time, the number of restaurants that were inspected because of consumer complaints had been steadily increasing for three years.

RISING COMPLAINTS

On Oct. 15, the Health Inspection Office received a complaint about the Deer Run Tavern at 365A Main St. in Yarmouth. The customer said the restaurant was not clean. The floors were sticky; one employee cooked, handled the money and served alcohol; and people were smoking outside with the door open.

Health inspector Joel Demers investigated the complaint three days later and was only able to substantiate one aspect of the complaint: The restaurant, which had not been inspected since 2010, was not clean.

Demers' subsequent inspection uncovered several violations regarding cleanliness and sanitation, including a lack of hot water in the hand-washing sink, a dishwasher that was not dispensing sanitizer, a dirty meat slicer and George Foreman grill; uncovered food items; raw fish being stored over cooked items and vegetables; and unpackaged butter and cabbage stored in direct contact with a dirty refrigerator shelf.

The restaurant was deemed a public health hazard and recommended for closure. State records show it passed a follow-up inspection on Nov. 1 and was cleared to reopen.

However, the restaurant was open and serving food on Oct. 31 before it was fully reinspected by the state.

Roy said inspectors cannot force a restaurant to close, unless they work with the Attorney General's Office to get a court order. "We can only recommend closure. Most establishments follow the Departments recommendations," she said in an email.

The Deer Run Tavern is no longer in business, and the location is now the home of You Wanna Pizza Me, which opened about three months ago after extensive renovations that included all new equipment.

Demers, the inspector, said he gave verbal permission for the tavern to reopen the day after it closed. He said he made a note in the state's inspection system, although there was no reference to that note in the follow-up inspection records reviewed by the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

"The system isn't ideal," Demers said.

Consumer complaints like this are becoming more common throughout Maine. State officials don't know why.

Roy speculated that people are becoming more aware of their food and the environment it is being served in. The state has not embarked on any education campaigns to encourage reports, she said.

"The public is more aware about food safety," said Roy. "I really don't know what to attribute it (the rise in complaints) to. Maybe it's more than one thing."

DATA HAVE LIMITATIONS

According to the state, complaints fall into 20 categories, including suspected cases of food-borne illness, sharp objects in food or injuries sustained while eating, and overall sanitation practices, to name a few.

Roy said limitations in the state's database make it impossible to provide a variety of information relating to its inspection programs, including a breakdown of the most common complaints against restaurants.

Last year in Maine, 542 complaints were filed against the roughly 8,500 entities -- restaurants, lodging facilities, campgrounds and body art studios -- licensed by the state Health Inspection Program, according to figures provided by the state. More than 200 of those complaints were filed against restaurants.

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