MOORLACH UPDATE — Food Safety — April 19, 2015

The OC Register again deals with restaurant inspections and the related fees required in order for the County to provide them. Sometimes you can just see the inevitable. Less inspections equals more safety violations, which means a higher likelihood of you receiving a food borne disease if you frequent this County’s fine eating establishments.

Don’t say "I didn’t tell you so" (see MOORLACH UPDATE — Restaurant Inspections — November 26, 2014 November 26, 2014).

BONUSES:

ARTIC

In a similar vein, yesterday the OC Register provided a front-page story on ARTIC (see http://www.ocregister.com/articles/city-658476-artic-revenue.html) The Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center was a train wreck from the get go. It was crammed down the throats of elected officials serving on the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and now it is a huge fiscal embarrassment. Once again, don’t say "I didn’t tell you so." See MOORLACH UPDATE — ARTIC — January 14, 2011 January 14, 2011, MOORLACH UPDATE — ARTIC — February 15, 2011 February 15, 2011, and MOORLACH UPDATE — Boondoggle — December 10, 2014 December 10, 2014.

The good news is that the annual costs of this tragic financial money pit is being borne solely by the city of Anaheim. This is a result of my having encouraged the OCTA Board to sell the land to Anaheim. Consequently, more costs are not being absorbed by County residents with their Measure M taxes. What’s scary is that the same brain trust that brought you this boondoggle now wants to build a streetcar to the station (see MOORLACH UPDATE — Streetcar Control — August 13, 2014 August 13, 2014).

I’ll do my best to be a voice for fiscal sanity in Sacramento as money pits, like High Speed Rail, are boondoggles on a grander scale.

REASON FOUNDATION

On Friday, April 10, I stayed in Sacramento to attend a pension reform conference sponsored by the Reason Foundation. The public safety unions that supported my opponent were there in force at the beginning of the day, see http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/the-state-worker/article18192998.html (if you are able to enter the Sacramento Bee’s website).

The good news? The host of the conference, Lance Christensen, will be my Legislative Director in the Sacramento office. I am continuing my tradition of hiring the best and the brightest, and Lance has been making a significant impact on pension reform around the nation. I am very fortunate to have him on the team. And, I want to thank Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation for allowing Lance to leave his outstanding organization to work for me.

DISTRICT EVENTS

As many know, the 37th Senate District contains some of the most active communities in the State. From time to time, I’m asked to help get the word out about certain events. One such event is the 15th Annual Eagle Forum State Conference – May 2, being held at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. Conference speakers will direct their message to "restoring our Christian foundations" by understanding America’s cornerstones of virtue, justice and exceptionalism that made America "the shining city on the hill.” For more information, visit http://goo.gl/rqbHY3.

OC Register Logo

Food safety violations jump at restaurants

Fewer health inspections, lack of understanding of laws cited as possibilities.

KEEGAN KYLE

County health inspectors logged steep climbs in forced restaurant closures and major food safety violations last year, raising new concerns about Orange County’s shrunken oversight of restaurants and other food vendors.

According to county data obtained by the Register under public records laws, the number of businesses that were forced to temporarily close due to major health violations spiked by 38 percent from the previous year, to 722. Most businesses were small or medium sized restaurants.

Despite a similar number of overall inspections last year, the amount of major violations found at all food facilities in the county grew by 11 percent, to 14,800. Unsafe storage temperatures, poor washing and pests drove much of the increase.

Inspectors issued 779 major violations for cockroaches, 189 for rodents and nine for other infestations in critical areas – 58 percent more than the previous year and nearly double the total in 2012. Major violations are conditions that pose an immediate danger to public health.

The rise in restaurant closures and violations comes after years of declining oversight by Orange County health officials. The county once inspected restaurants and other food facilities four times a year – in sync with FDA recommendations. Today, most restaurants are inspected half as often.

County inspectors last year were responsible for monitoring food sanitation practices at 15,000 businesses, including restaurants, supermarkets, catering services and taverns. Inspection reports are searchable on the county’s website by name. Recent permit suspensions are listed as well.

Inspectors closed 105 establishments in the past two months, mostly for cockroach and other pest infestations, according to online data. About half were allowed to re-open on the same day of their permit suspension.

INCREASE NOT CLEAR

Health officials aren’t sure what prompted the increase in violations last year, saying many factors influence the number of health permit suspensions and violations each year. But they said some cashstrapped restaurants may have cut food safety expenses like pest control to stay afloat and county inspectors have trimmed outreach efforts because of budget cuts.

“We’re out there giving them (businesses) the tools they need to come into compliance,” said Denise Fennessy, who oversees the county’s food safety inspections . “They’re so focused on their production of food that sometimes they’re not able to make all the corrections.”

Fennessy said she would like inspectors to spend more time with business owners, helping them understand food safety laws and the reasons for those laws. But staffing losses have increased pressure on inspectors to complete their work quicker.

Jennifer Muir, a spokeswoman for the union that represents health inspectors, called the spike in closures and violations “alarming” and said it highlights broader funding problems in an agency responsible for overseeing one of Orange County’s most vibrant industries.

“Just imagine how much more frightening those numbers would be if the department were given the resources they need to protect consumers,” Muir said.

Health officials have consistently fallen short on annual food safety goals outlined in budget documents. In each of the past three years, they hoped that fewer than one in every six restaurants would be issued a major violation. Instead, it has been one in every three.

“We call it kind of a stretch goal,” said Richard Sanchez, a top county health official. “I don’t know that we had an expectation to meet that with our current program.”

Higher costs of retired employees and stagnant business fees are partly responsible for the drop in inspections. Health permit fees, which largely fund the county’s inspection program, have not been adjusted since 2008. Restaurants pay a range of $561to $925 annually, depending on their size.

SEEKING HIGHER FEES

Though the county Board of Supervisors twice rejected proposed fee hikes last year, Sanchez said his office intends to bring another fee increase before the supervisors this year. Without it, he said, some restaurants could be inspected just once a year starting in July.

“We’re still at the level … that we felt was pretty much the minimum we could provide and feel comfortable,” Sanchez said. “If we got down to one inspection per year, we may look at alternatives to our inspection program because I don’t think that would provide the surveillance that we would feel comfortable (with) from a public health standpoint.”

Matt Sutton, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association, which represents more than 450 businesses in Orange County, said the rise in major violations warrants further examination by health officials . But it doesn’t necessarily indicate problems with the county’s current inspection program, he said.

Still, Sutton said more frequent inspections are “probably better for some” businesses, and the organization understands the need for a fee increase to keep up routine inspections. It just needs to be consistent and manageable for owners, Sutton said.

“We know that if the county remains unable to do frequent visits, that’s a problem for all of us,“ Sutton said. “I believe there will be a fee increase. It just depends how it’s structured.”

The Register requested to speak with each of the county’s five supervisors this week about the rise in health permit suspensions and major violations. None agreed to be interviewed.

EVALUATING SAFETY

Aiming to halt the decline in inspections last fall, county officials requested a 5 percent hike in health permit fees to continue inspecting restaurants twice annually. But the board rejected the idea.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer cited a lack of evidence at the time to question that two routine inspections a year was needed and offered that sick patrons could always pinpoint unsafe businesses by filing complaints with the county –a reactive model of oversight.

“The evidence isn’t showing that we have a pervasive problem,” Spitzer said during a September board meeting. “At least the evidence that’s being presented to us doesn’t lead us to a conclusion that we have to raise the fees.”

County health staff didn’t provide the supervisors with data on the results of their inspections – only countywide statistics on the prevalence of food-borne illnesses. That data, representing all cases regardless of the food’s origin, showed no significant change in response to conducting fewer inspections.

This week, Sanchez called food-borne illness the most important indicator of a successful inspection program. But he acknowledged that county health officials currently lack a reliable system of tracking the information. They mainly gauge success based on the rate of major violations, which reflect the leading causes of food-borne illness.

Neither Sanchez nor Fennessy said the recent rise in major violations necessarily marks problems with Orange County’s restaurant inspection program, however. Sanchez said that “appears to be so” based on anecdotal evidence but he wasn’t convinced yet that patrons should be concerned.

“It’s really hard to tell whether more inspections would resolve (the increase in violations) or whether we would just find more violations,” Fennessy added.

GRADING SYSTEM

Food safety issues have long shadowed the Board of Supervisors. Citizen grand juries unsuccessfully urged the board in 2008 and last year to adopt restaurant grading systems similar to those used by other Southern California counties. In Los Angeles, inspection results determine whether restaurants get A, B or C placards on their windows.

Four out of five Orange County supervisors verbally endorsed the idea of a grading system in April 2014 in order to give patrons more information on the results of inspections. Spitzer supported a letter grade system to be “regionally homogenous” while three of his colleagues preferred a color-coded system.

Yet the supervisors failed to agree on a plan before the end of the year. Elections then installed three new faces on the board. John ‍Moor‍‍lach, the only supervisor who voted for a fee hike and a grading system, was among those who left the board.

Opponents of the grading system focused last year on its additional cost and concerns that raising public awareness of inspection results might spur more businesses to demand quicker re-inspections after receiving poor grades. Health officials estimated in September that a color-coded system would cost $40,000 annually, or about $3 per permitted business.

Business owners have been divided on a grading system and higher fees to maintain inspection levels. The California Restaurant Association urged the county to delay voting on either proposal in September and to conduct more outreach with business owners. Two months later, the proposals died altogether.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson argued at one point last year that a grading system amounted to the kind of government over-regulation that pressured restaurant chains, including Carl’s Jr., to consider leaving California. But in August, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. wrote a letter to the supervisors endorsing the proposed fee increase and color-coded grading system.

CONTACT THE WRITER:

kkyle  

On Twitter: @keegankyle

This e-mail has been sent by California State Senator John M. W. Moorlach, 37th District.

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