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 state only began tracking which establishments failed their inspections three years ago, according to Roy.

Over the past three years, Maine restaurants failed 6.3 percent of all inspections. At least 46 restaurants statewide that were deemed imminent health hazards were closed until their violations were resolved.

A review of the violations that led to restaurant closures highlights the dangers of serving unsafe food.

Among the most common violations are a lack of knowledge of the food code, improper hot or cold storage of food, dirty food-contact surfaces, improper or lack of hand washing and storing food in a way that could contaminate it.

Last year, at least 16 restaurants were deemed imminent health hazards and forced to close, compared to 13 in 2011.

The Asia Eatery Restaurant in Paris was shut down in November, for example, after an inspector observed a dead mouse in a pool of grease on the floor next to the pork cooker, as well as mouse droppings and uncovered food. A month earlier, a pest company observed a dead mouse in a trap, according to the inspection report. The eatery passed a follow-up inspection a week later and has since reopened.

Pests were also a problem at the Fortune Fountain Restaurant in Farmington.

In November 2011, a customer complained about a bug in his/her drink. The health inspector investigated the complaint the following day, and recommended closure as an imminent health hazard for violations including flies, crawling insects, and dirty food contact surfaces and equipment. The storefront at 605 Wilton Road that housed Fortune Fountain is now the home of the Lotus Blossom Restaurant, which was also deemed an imminent health hazard in May 2012, according to state records. It has since passed three inspections. Last September, the Porthole Restaurant on Portland's waterfront closed because of a serious rat infestation. It reopened in April under new ownership and after extensive renovations.

The Super Great Wall Buffet in South Portland was closed in 2011 after an inspector observed 24 violations, including cockroaches, moldy walls and rough cutting boards. Sturgeon, then a South Portland employee, wrote that she was kicked out of the establishment before the inspection was completed.

It passed a follow-up inspection the next day and reopened.

More often, restaurants that fail an inspection remain open while they work to fix problems.

Last year, 176 restaurants failed their inspections; that's up from 167 in 2011.

GETTING THE WORD OUT

When a restaurant is closed by a health inspector in Maine, the establishment does not have to tell its customers why it is closed. And, if it fails an inspection but remains open, the customers have no way of knowing there could be problems unless they request a copy of the inspection from the state, town or the restaurant.

In the case of the Deer Run Tavern in Yarmouth, diners were not notified that food was being served in a facility previously deemed an imminent health hazard by the state and allowed to reopen before passing a complete reinspection.

"While we do not publicly acknowledge or post the reason why an establishment is closed, it has been our experience that word typically spreads," said Roy, who oversees the state inspection program. "Whenever a person dines out, he or she needs to be active in assessing their surroundings and what he or she may witness. They may always contact our program to find out the status of an establishment if there is a question or complaint."

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