Yarmouth rep's restaurant inspection bill moves forward

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YARMOUTH —A bill that would enable local health inspectors to once again inspect restaurants will be considered by the Maine Legislature during its session beginning in January.

Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, created the bill in response to a law passed during the previous Legislature that prohibits local health inspectors from inspecting restaurants unless they have been certified at the state level.

“Their rationale was that state inspectors are better trained, that they go through more rigorous training that gets into studying microbes, and they have a better foundation for understanding what’s safe and what isn’t,” Cooper said. “The idea that having local people there would confuse restaurants because they’d think they passed muster and then along come the state inspectors who potentially say, ‘No.'”

But getting certified at the state level is a difficult and cumbersome process. All but a few of Maine’s cities (one being Portland) have forgone that certification for their local health inspectors, Cooper said, choosing instead to rely on state inspectors.

But there’s concern that there just aren’t enough state inspectors.

“It can take them weeks if not months to come over to inspect,” Cooper said. “And when there’s an emergency, say there’s a fire in the kitchen that requires repairs and they need to be recertified in order to open again, they’re losing money every day that they’re closed.”

Cooper submitted a similar bill during the House’s last session that was killed early in the process.

But reports about inspection short-comings got the attention of House leadership in May, and paved the way for Cooper’s new bill, which the Legislative Council voted 6-4 last week to consider during its upcoming session.

The bill hasn’t even been written yet, but it already has opposition.

“To have inspectors in different towns throughout the state with different qualifications, teaching differently about food inspections, having different standards, that doesn’t work for us,” said Dick Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association. “We would oppose that totally.”

Cooper and Grotton agreed that having more state-certified inspectors would be ideal, but they differed on how best to deal with the current state of affairs.

“You can’t hold out for the best if all you’ve got is the good,” Cooper said. “It’s better to protect diners from foodborne illnesses (using local inspectors) until such a time when we can afford to have a top notch workforce across the state.”

“If they feel the inspection process is constrained by the number of state inspectors, then they can address that at the legislative level,” Grotton said. “But doing that at the community level doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We would oppose that heartily.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.