May 19, 2013

Why do failure rates vary across the state?

Insiders say a code is applied uniformly to inspect eateries, but using ‘common sense’ can still make results subjective.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Scott Davis, a state health inspector, checks the temperature of food stored in a walk-in cooler in the kitchen at the Stage Neck Inn in York Harbor as executive chef Lynn Pressey looks on. “He knows we’re trying to do the right thing.” Pressey said.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

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Also, the cooks were wearing thermometers, showing that they regularly test food temperatures, Davis said.

That approach puts chefs like Pressey at ease.

"In the beginning, I used to panic," Pressey said of health inspections. "But I have known this gentleman for a long time. He knows we're trying to do the right thing."

Grotton conceded that inspections are "a little bit in the eye of the beholder."

Perhaps nowhere is that more acute than in the Portland area.

When Michele Sturgeon worked in South Portland as an inspector, the rate of restaurants that failed was 25.4 percent in 2010 and 31.5 percent in 2011.

She left the job in 2011, and the rate dropped significantly. Only three restaurants out of 185 restaurants inspected in 2012 failed -- a rate of 1.6 percent.

Sturgeon became Portland's full-time health inspector in August of 2011 and failed 19 out of 23 restaurants that year -- a rate of 82.6 percent. In 2012, about 40 out of 88 restaurants failed, a rate of 45.5 percent, and nine were closed because they were deemed imminent health hazards.

Before Sturgeon arrived, only 28 restaurants out of 556 inspected between 2008 and 2010 failed -- a failure rate of 5 percent. None was closed or deemed an imminent health hazard as a result of the city's inspections.

Sturgeon said she is not allowed to talk to the media without the city's permission. Her boss, Douglas Gardner, director of the city's Public Health and Human Services Department, said Sturgeon was "not available at this time." City officials did not respond to requests for more information about why Sturgeon was not available.

"In terms of consistency, that is certainly a priority for us and the state, which is why every inspector must be recertified every three years," Gardner said in an email.

Sturgeon went on medical leave in December. City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg would not comment on her current employment status.

Roy said the department emphasizes working with restaurant owners and not marking down every violation that is witnessed by an inspector, unless an owner is unwilling to cooperate

"We want to work through education, first and foremost," Roy said. "We don't want to come down hard. We do want to work with people. You're going to get better compliance with your licensee." 

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

Twitter: @randybillings


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