May 19, 2013

Oversight of Maine restaurants diminishes, just as complaints rise

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine’s guidelines for overseeing restaurant safety were quietly scaled back last year, even as the number of health-related complaints about Maine restaurants has been on the rise.

click image to enlarge

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

An investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram has found that restaurant kitchens in Maine are subject to fewer inspections and less transparency than restaurants in much of the country. In addition, the state cannot track the most common food code violations or analyze trends and variations from one county to another.

Among the findings:  

The number of complaints that led to restaurant inspections has increased 87 percent since 2008, including a 35 percent jump after the Legislature doubled the amount of time between mandatory inspections. Key lawmakers were not aware of the increase in complaints when they changed the law.

Little information is readily accessible to the public about the cleanliness of restaurants, with Maine being one of a small number of states where no local or statewide authority posts inspection information online. If a restaurant fails an inspection or is deemed a health hazard and closed, it is not required to inform its patrons.

The Press Herald created an online database of Portland restaurant inspections, but statewide data provided to the newspaper were too flawed to post online.

State inspectors could not meet the state’s own mandate to conduct annual inspections, so the Legislature loosened the law to require an inspection once every two years. Other states require annual inspections, while many require multiple inspections each year.

The state system for tracking restaurant inspections is seriously limited, erroneously listing some restaurants as public health hazards, saddling some new restaurants with the poor performance of a previous restaurant simply because it’s located at the same address, and provides no way for the state to analyze the most common food code violations.

Inspection failure rates vary greatly from county to county. Restaurants in one county failed 13 percent of all inspections over the last three years, while in another county, virtually none failed.

Sarah Klein, senior staff attorney for food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., said frequent restaurant inspections – ideally two to four a year, as some states require – are important to protect public health and restaurant owners. Moreover, those results need to be made available to the public, said Klein, who is leading the center’s effort to have letter grades based on inspection results posted in restaurant windows.

“Once every two years? That’s terrifying,” Klein said of Maine’s law. “Frequent inspections allow the public health department to show restaurants how to do it right so that people don’t get sick.”

Lisa Roy, manager of the state’s Health Inspection Program, said the state is ensuring safety by prioritizing its inspections. The team focuses on illness complaints, overdue inspections and follow-ups with restaurants that have failed previous inspections.

“I think our restaurants are very safe,” Roy said. “I feel comfortable with every other year. We’re always on top of problems and complaints. If there is a problem we’re going to follow up on it.”

Ensuring that restaurants across the state follow the best practices for handling, storing and serving foods is the responsibility of 11 health inspectors, who also are responsible for inspecting lodging establishments, body art studios and summer youth camps. Each inspector is responsible for 600 to 800 establishments in all.

(Continued on page 2)

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