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

The most common complaints among all licensed entities were poor sanitation practices, sharp objects in food or eating-related injuries, food-borne illness and hygienic practices. The types of complaints specifically against restaurants could not be broken out of the data, Roy said.

It's not clear how many of the food-borne illness complaints have been substantiated, both because of limitations in state record-keeping and because it is difficult to prove a food-borne illness came from a restaurant meal.

"Typically, (complainants) think the last place they ate at made them ill," Roy said. "It is very difficult to track it back to that (alleged) establishment."

That appeared to be the case in January 2012, after several people complained about getting sick after eating at Petite Jacqueline, a Portland bistro nominated for a coveted James Beard award. Although the restaurant failed initial follow-up inspections, it was never forced to close and inspectors could not prove the restaurant made people sick.

A top state health official agreed that food-borne illnesses are difficult to trace back to their source.

In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, there were 134 confirmed cases of salmonella in Maine and 28 cases of E. coli. Both figures were up slightly from the previous year, which saw 133 and 21 cases, respectively.

Maine's case rate per 100,000 people for E. coli is 2.1, which is more than twice the 2011 national rate of 0.98. However, Maine's case rate for salmonella is only 10.1, which is well below the 2011 national average of 16.47.

The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention tracks cases of food-borne illness and assists the inspection program with illness investigations involving clusters of unrelated people. But it can rarely determine which cases of food-borne illness are caused by restaurants and which are caused from other sources, said Dr. Stephen Sears, the state epidemiologist, because the gestation periods for certain diseases, such as salmonella, are too long to definitively identify the source, and investigations often rely on a person's memory.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., issued a report in 2008 saying 41 percent of all food-borne illness outbreaks from 1990 to 2006 could be traced to restaurant food.

The "Dirty Dining" report looked at restaurant inspection programs in 20 major U.S. cities and analyzed 16 years' worth of national inspection data. The top five critical, or high-risk, violations, according to the report, were improper holding temperatures, inadequate hand washing, improper cooking, contaminated food contact surfaces and food from unsafe sources.

MOVING TO FEWER INSPECTIONS

The rise in complaints was not raised as an issue when the Legislature decided in 2011 to double the amount of time in between mandatory inspections.

Before the new law took effect in 2012, each establishment needed to be inspected once a year. But the state could not meet that annual inspection requirement with its limited number of inspectors.

Each inspector is responsible for an average of 700 establishments, meaning each inspector would have to check more than a dozen establishments a week along with follow-up inspections and complaint responses.

Since state inspectors are stretched thin, five municipalities -- Portland, South Portland, Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon -- hire their own state-certified health inspectors to check restaurants and be more responsive to public complaints.

Still, the annual inspection requirement proved unattainable.

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