Maine's new health inspection rules raise doubts about restaurant oversight

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YARMOUTH — When town councilors meet May 17, part of their agenda will focus on a bread-and-butter issue coming up in many towns that have conducted health inspections of local restaurants.

A change in Maine law now requires all local health inspectors to have delegated authority from the state for inspections of restaurants, campgrounds, lodging establishments, public pools and spas and youth camps.

But obtaining delegated state authority, or being licensed, to inspect food establishments could become much more difficult if administrative rules changes by the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention Division of Environmental Health are enacted this summer.

The proposed rule changes will bring the state in line with federal Food and Drug Administration standards adopted in 2009, as opposed to 1999, said Lisa Roy, the state program manager who oversees the health inspection program.

Included in new standards are methods for testing for microbial contamination that veteran inspectors have not used before.

“This is a real overkill,” Anita Anderson, who has been an inspector for local health departments, told Yarmouth councilors at a May 3 workshop. “Ninety-nine percent of towns in Maine do not get into these standards.”

Anderson said certification requirements to obtain state-delegated authority are driving experienced local inspectors out of the business.

In the past, local inspectors worked with state inspectors when needed, and Anderson said a lack of inspectors could harm the industry and its regulation.

“They are very comprehensive and very complicated,” Roy said about the proposed rule changes she expects will be reviewed at a public hearing in Augusta next month.

Local inspectors will not have to pay for training to be certified as state inspectors, Roy said, but the training provided by two state inspectors requires 25 inspections accompanied by an FDA-certified inspector and 25 solo inspections with inspection records reviewed by the training officer.

Anderson disagreed with Roy’s interpretation, and said her reading of the proposed regulations shows local inspectors will have to make 37 inspections accompanied by a FDA-certified inspectors. Getting certified to work in one geographic area will be difficult because there may not be enough restaurants in the area to fulfill the certification requirements for inspectors, she said.

The state has already delegated authority to inspectors in Portland, South Portland, Lewiston and Auburn. South Portland Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette said local inspectors will learn about the new standards as part of their routine training.

Some towns, including Scarborough, Freeport and Cape Elizabeth, have entirely or largely left health inspections for eating establishments to state inspectors. In Yarmouth, councilors are expected to discuss eliminating the local victualer’s ordinance and annual $50 license fee charged to business owners because the fee included local inspections.

“Let’s get out of the victualer’s license business altogether,” Town Manager Nat Tupper recommended at last week’s council workshop.

In neighboring Brunswick and Bath, local health inspections of restaurants have ended, even as the inspectors supported new health standards.

Bath Code Enforcement Officer Scott Davis said the training to earn state licensing to inspect eating establishments is so demanding it can’t fit into the workload of local code inspectors, so it is easier to let state inspectors carry the load.

He wondered if the state now has enough inspectors to meet the goal of inspecting each eating establishment at least once every two years.

“It is a noble goal,” Davis said. “I question if they have the resources.”

Brunswick Deputy Fire Chief Jeffrey Emerson has been conducting health inspections for six years, but said he will now only be inspecting places for fire safety.

“The process through the state is at this time too significant of a workload for us to undertake,” Emerson said. “If there are health issue we are aware of, we will turn them over to (the Department of) Health and Human Services.”

The new state rules also affect the owners of eating establishments, who are now required to designate a “certified food protection manager.” Bed-and-breakfast establishments with fewer than six rooms and places serving food for 14 days or less each year are exempt from the requirement enacted in January.

Dick Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, said he welcomes the new rules.

Grotton said he does not worry about a lack of inspectors and had not heard of new restaurants having any difficulties in opening because of delayed inspections.

“We need to be more knowledgeable about codes and FDA regulations,” Grotton said, noting the requirement for a food protection manager was delayed for a year to allow restaurants time to comply.

The certification requires one or two days of intensive training, he said, and the association has arranged training sessions for its members and nonmembers.

Grotton urged restaurant owners to take the training and designate someone with authority to manage food safety.

“It is not rocket science, it is very straightforward stuff,” he said. “Owners need to be able to walk through kitchen and know when things are right or not right.”

Grotton said he has reviewed the proposed health standards revisions, and supports the idea of a conforming standard so owners will not be faced with trying to satisfy two sets of licensing requirements.

Emerson, in Brunswick, agreed with the need for conformity, but said he worries about the immediate future of inspections.

“I understand what they are trying to accomplish,” he said. “It is unfortunate it can’t be accomplished in a way to keep more eyes pointed at public safety.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow David on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.