PORTLAND — Maine Restaurant Week returns this week, with restaurant owners hoping diners will turn out in droves to celebrate the state’s culinary arts.
In Portland, a city celebrated nationally for its dining scene, the nearly two-week promotion from March 1-12 is nothing short of a religious high holiday for foodies.
But can restaurant patrons in Portland and its surrounding towns be sure they are being served food that is prepared safely, in kitchens that comply with state and local health codes?
Not very easily.
A review of state and municipal restaurant inspection records reveals authorities are not always conducting the annual restaurant inspections required to ensure the establishments comply with food safety laws.
In Portland, where the city is delegated inspection authority by the state, some restaurants haven’t been inspected since 2007. And there is scant evidence the city has conducted required follow-up inspections to ensure compliance with food codes by restaurants that have been cited for violations.
The track record isn’t better for restaurants that fall under the state’s jurisdiction. Some in Freeport, Yarmouth and Brunswick haven’t been inspected since 2002.
In cases where inspection reports are available, many note critical food violations that could lead to contamination: improper hand-washing, poor staff hygiene, hot and cold food not being stored at proper temperatures and food surfaces not being cleaned to prevent potential contamination.
Often, violations are corrected immediately on site, during the inspections. Other times, required follow-up inspections have not been performed.
And diners aren’t the only ones at risk. The lack of regular inspections also threatens restaurant owners, who may have to cope with the existence of out-of-date inspections that can leave a bad taste in the mouths of curious patrons.
State law ignored
State law requires the Inspections Division of the Department of Health and Human Services to inspect Maine restaurants at least once a year.
But neither the state nor local municipalities are meeting that requirement.
Lisa Brown, the program director for state health inspections, acknowledged that the state is not meeting its obligation.
The department employs 11 inspectors who are responsible for the entire state. Brown said each inspector is responsible for 600 to 800 establishments, including restaurants, youth camps, body piercing and tattoo parlors, and public swimming pools and spas.
The department recently instituted a new procedure to become more efficient, she said.
“I think we’re on a good path,” Brown said. “I think we’re making some good headway.”
The goal is to inspect restaurants every two years, Brown said.
But that still falls short of the statutory requirement.
There are four municipalities where the state has delegated its authority to inspect restaurants to local officials: Portland, South Portland, Lewiston and Auburn.
Inspections are conducted by municipal employees who must be trained by the state. The standard for food safety is the State Food Code, even if municipalities have a local ordinance on food safety, as Portland does.
In Portland, restaurant inspections are handled by three Planning Department employees.
Portland Planning Director Penny St. Louis said the city’s contract with the state does not require it to inspect annually, but Brown said that is untrue. Each municipality must conduct annual inspections and submit them to the state, she said.
Portland is the only municipality in the state not following the reporting protocol. Rather than submit its information in the required digital form, Portland only offers paper copies of its inspection records.
“We are working with Portland on this,” Brown said.
St. Louis said the city could not possibly inspect its approximately 700 restaurants annually and report on them in the state’s chosen format. She said the state database does not communicate with the city system, which means employees would have to enter the information from scratch.
“That would triplicate our workload,” St. Louis said.
Portland inspectors fill out their reports by hand, give each restaurant a score on a 100-point scale, and then enter the results into the city’s database, which tracks the information.
The process makes the data difficult to track and retrieve. In a few cases, the city could provide a specific restaurant’s score, but not its actual report.
Brown said the state is scheduled to review the inspection programs of each of its delegated municipalities this coming year. She would not speculate about what might happen if Portland does not comply.
St. Louis defended the city’s program, saying reports of food-born illnesses are rare.
“We’re really proud of the job we do,” she said.
Portland Inspections Director Tammy Munson said there are three employees, including herself, certified to perform restaurant inspections in the city.
But those employees are also the city’s code enforcement officers, not dedicated restaurant inspectors, according to St. Louis.
“They are also responsible for a myriad of other code enforcement (duties),” Munson said.
An examination of reports for 50 Portland restaurants revealed a total of 64 inspection reports in the last three years. Four have been inspected so far in 2011, seven were inspected in 2010, 28 in 2009 and 24 in 2008.
St. Louis said the city prioritizes food complaints and then gives priority to new restaurants, before catching up on annual inspections. She said the city is doing a better job than would be done by the state.
“I’m very comfortable with the way we do inspections and the frequency,” she said. “If the state wants to come in and inspect our restaurants annually, they can.
“Do I think each restaurant needs to be inspected annually?” she added. “I really don’t.”
Portland, unlike the state, assigns restaurants a score for each inspection.
Munson said the scoring system is objective, because certain points are deducted for specific violations.
But Steve DiMillo, operator of DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant on Commercial Street and chairman of the Maine Restaurant Association board of directors, said he hears complaints from restaurant owners that the inspection process is too subjective.
Depending on the inspector, DiMillo said some Old Port restaurant owners may be cited for failure to have hand sinks in appropriate areas of their kitchens. Others may not.
And that may not be the only difference.
Inspection reports from the city generally contain fewer critical violations that would be factored into the restaurant’s grade and even fewer noncritical violations.
The state inspections, meanwhile, often contain many comments and notes, which Brown said are intended to educate restaurant owners.
Brown said the state uses a pass-fail grading system, where four critical violations, or 10 noncritical violations, lead to a failed inspection, even if the violations are corrected on site.
Portland, Munson said, does not deduct points for violations corrected on site.
DiMillo said he “has a good relationship” with city inspectors, because he is a responsible restaurant owner. He was surprised when a reporter told him his most recent inspection report was from 2007.
And, even though the report indicated that a follow-up inspection was required, there was no record it was performed. The same is true of a half-dozen other Portland restaurants whose reports were examined.
Munson said the city conducts follow-ups when required, but doesn’t always file a follow-up report.
But the state, like anyone else who may be interested in the health practices of Maine restaurants, has no way of knowing the follow-up was completed without documentation.
“It all needs to be documented,” Brown said. “If you don’t document it, it didn’t happen.”
In Freeport, the Azure Cafe hasn’t been inspected by the state since 2003. Like most restaurants in the state, there were some compliance issues that the establishment had to address, including the use of rough cutting boards (that could trap food and bacteria) and inappropriately labeled or stored chemicals.
While some owners may consider infrequent inspections a blessing in disguise, the infrequency can come back to bite restaurants left with negative reports hanging over their heads.
Azure Cafe owner Jonas Werner said he is always ready to work with state restaurant inspectors to keep up with current food codes. Inspectors are helpful in providing education materials to him and his staff, Werner said.
But Werner noted that lack of regular inspections, which are public records, can end up hurting businesses – even those with the best intentions.
“It does just leave it hanging out there,” Werner said. “It doesn’t give the opportunity to show improvements were made.”
Where it’s working
Things are different across the Fore River from Portland.
South Portland Code Enforcement Officer Patricia Doucette said her city has one inspector devoted to food and lodging establishments, including convenience stores. She said the city conducts about 200 health inspections a year on restaurants, sandwich shops and convenience stores, among others.
Brown said South Portland is among the municipalities that submit their reports in the required state format, making it easier for the public to view the information and for the state to track the program.
It only took the state a matter of hours to e-mail digital reports for restaurants under its and South Portland’s jurisdiction. But it took Portland several weeks to provide photocopies of city records, which the state could not access.
And the records in South Portland appeared to be more up to date. A sample of 11 restaurants showed that all had been inspected within the last two years.
Eric Bruneau, owner of the South Portland House of Pizza, said he always works with local inspectors to address areas of concern.
“The things the inspector found were corrected immediately,” Bruneau said.
And Brown said that’s how the system, at both the state and municipal level, is supposed to work.
“We’re trying to mitigate those violations that are there,” she said.
Take it from a pro
So, what can a diner do when it comes to choosing restaurants to frequent during Maine Restaurant Week – or any other week of the year?
Wilfred Beriau, executive chef in Southern Maine Community College’s Culinary Arts Program – the first in the state to earn American Culinary Federation accreditation – said one must trust their chef and always be aware of one’s surroundings.
Most restaurants, Beriau said, will publicly display a certificate showing completion of the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe Program, an extensive food safety program dealing with everything from food-born pathogens to rodents.
He said the cleanliness of a restaurant may also be ascertained by simple observation of the staff, restrooms, foyer and floors beneath the tables.
“Look around,” Beriau said. “You can tell the sanitation of a restaurant by the front-of-the-house staff. If they’re all clean and professional-looking, then that’s a good indication the rest of the restaurant is good.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The scene inside a Portland restaurant kitchen.
Hands-on as scallops are prepared.
A saute pan full of fresh Maine seafood.
A chef’s hands at work in a Portland restaurant kitchen.
Finished plates await service.