May 19, 2013

Oversight of Maine restaurants diminishes, just as complaints rise

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 6)

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

Information needs to be passed on to consumers so they can make healthy decisions, said Klein, the advocate.

"The best way we found to do that is by providing restaurant inspections in the form of a letter grade that is easily understandable -- usually comparable -- in the front window of the restaurant so the consumer can make a dining decision while they are walking around," Klein said.

Without making results known to the public in an easily digestible format, there is no need to even have an inspection program, Klein said.

"Restaurant inspections, unless the restaurant is closed, are largely the restaurateur's hidden shame. No one ever knows about it," she said.

Maine is one of only three states without some sort of inspection records posted online by a state, county or local inspection program, according to Food Safety News.

While posting inspection records online for the public to see is common in much of the country, both Klein and Grotton said they oppose requiring full inspection reports to be posted online.

Such reports are complex and difficult to understand, they said. They also need to be kept up to date so a bad score doesn't haunt a restaurant that has made improvements, Grotton said.

Unlike Klein, however, Grotton also opposes posting letter grades at restaurants, saying they can be misunderstood.

"There are a thousand details, all of which go into making up your health score," Grotton said. "And the public isn't privy to all the details, so they should not be privy to the results."

At least one study raises questions about the use of restaurant grades to promote food safety.

A study published in The Yale Law Journal in December looked at the inspection scoring practices of 10 jurisdictions in the country.

In San Diego, it found almost all restaurants received an "A," rendering the grades meaningless. In New York City, inspection standards were inconsistent and individual restaurants' scores varied greatly from year to year. The study didn't find evidence that requiring restaurants to post grades reduced food-borne illnesses.

In Maine, for now, the only way to know a restaurant's cleanliness record is to ask for the reports.

Roy, the manager of the state inspection program, said individual inspection reports can be requested through the state inspections office. Also, restaurants are required to keep a copy of their most recent inspection available for public review and present it upon request, though Roy said inspectors do not check compliance with this rule during their inspections.

When a reporter asked to see the latest inspection report for David's in Portland's Monument Square, an employee of the restaurant asked who she was and why she wanted it.

After identifying herself as a reporter and telling the employee that the restaurant is required to provide the report to anyone who asks for it, the employee still demanded to see identification and proof that the reporter worked for the newspaper, before getting owner David Turin.

Turin said he was not aware of the rule, but retrieved the latest inspection report, from Dec. 18, which said the restaurant passed.

"I've never had a customer ask me to see a restaurant inspection," said Turin, who has owned 10 restaurants over the past 30 years.

Roy, the head of the state program, said the department someday would like to build an online database for inspections.

"Again, it's a resources issue," Roy said. "I know the public wants to have inspection reports online."

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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