May 19, 2013

Oversight of Maine restaurants diminishes, just as complaints rise

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 4)

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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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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

Roy said the state has been able to increase its annual inspections by using tablet computers to file electronic reports from the field and by drafting clearer operating procedures to improve efficiency.

Even with the increases, inspectors are struggling to inspect establishments every two years.

There are 4,862 licensed eating establishment in Maine, Roy said. Last year, the state conducted 3,275 inspections, but those figures also include multiple inspections for some individual establishments. Inspectors also are responsible for hundreds of other inspections, including lodging establishments and tattoo parlors.

"The complaint I hear most frequently is they don't see (inspection) people every two years," Grotton said. "I think owner-operators are very aware that they don't know everything they should know."

Restaurant owners rely on inspections as a means of education, he said. Food safety is a high-stakes issue for owners, in terms of liability and reputation, Grotton said.

"The last thing any restaurant wants is to be doing something that has the propensity to make someone sick," he said. "Once that happens, it's hell to pay."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest's "Dirty Dining" report found that, even though most inspection departments were understaffed in 20 U.S. cities, the average inspection frequency was twice a year.

The ideal inspection frequency is two to four times a year, Klein said in an interview, so owners can improve employee training and understand aspects of the food code designed to prevent illness -- such as properly using and maintaining cutting boards and storing hot and cold food properly.

"If they know they can be inspected several times throughout the year at an unannounced inspection, they're much more likely to maintain those (best) practices all the time than if they know they have two years before their next inspection," Klein said.

Rep. Stuckey said he used to run a day care in Portland in the 1970s that served food to children. He recalled the city sending in a health inspector once a month, which put the staff in a constant state of preparedness.

"You knew they were coming once a month, but you never knew when they were coming." Stuckey said.

Portland's recent experience appears to underscore the value of more frequent inspections.

There are about 700 eateries in Portland, but the city put restaurant inspections on the back burner for several years, conducting only 28 inspections in 2010. In 2011, the city hired a full-time health inspector and dramatically stepped up its oversight.

The inspector, Michele Sturgeon, who is known as a by-the-book inspector, said she found many had relaxed due to a lack of inspections. Nineteen of the 23 restaurants she inspected failed in 2011. In 2012, about 40 of 88 inspections were failures, including nine businesses that were closed as imminent health hazards.

As a result, the city began holding voluntary education sessions for restaurant owners struggling to comply with a 2001 food code. Next year's budget proposes adding a part-time health inspector to share the workload.


A restaurant can fail its inspection for a variety of reasons, some more serious than others. A critical violation is defined as a probable health risk or something likely to pose a risk for contamination or illness, including not storing food at proper temperatures.

A restaurant can have as many as 13 violations, including three or fewer critical ones, and pass inspection. A restaurant with more than three critical violations, or more than 10 non-critical violations, fails but may stay open if enough violations can be corrected immediately. If the violations present a public health hazard, the restaurant is closed until the problems are corrected.

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