County health officials have fired back at a county civil grand jury report that took them to task for alleged weaknesses in their inspections of restaurants and other food vendors.
In a report to be discussed Tuesday by the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, Health Agency Director Jeff Hamm and Health Officer Penny Borenstein “disagree wholly” with several grand jury conclusions, including one that said restaurant inspection results from the county Environmental Health Services should be posted in a place that is easily viewed by restaurant patrons.
Hamm and Borenstein wrote that it is up to the vendor, not the county, to place the reviews.
“While the Health Agency agrees that the best location would be in the front window or at the payment or hostess station,” they wrote, “the law does not require it.”
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The grand jury also wrote that the public notice “does not include sufficient information,” and recommended posting the vendor’s score or grade.
To this, Environmental Health Services replied that posting just a score really doesn’t tell the customer anything about the restaurant, and could lead to calls for more inspections.
“The increase in staff work load caused by requests for re-inspections takes staff away from their primary mission of protecting public health,” Hamm and Borenstein wrote.
Various local governments across the country require some form of posting inspection reports. For example, Los Angeles County requires restaurants to post their letter grades in their windows.
Environmental Health Services did concur with the grand jury’s recommendation that it install a complaint hotline. Currently, the calls go to the Environmental Health Services main number.
The agency also “disagreed wholly” with grand jury conclusions that:
Food safety instruction in kitchens observed by grand jurors is solely in English, even though many Latinos work in restaurant kitchens. Borenstein and Hamm wrote that the signs have been in Spanish and English for years.
Enforcement policy is minimal and violation deterrents are insufficient. The county enforcement policy is not only “excellent,” they wrote, but has resulted in a high level of public safety and a low incidence of reported food-borne disease outbreaks.
Environmental Health Services “disagree(d) partially” with a grand jury observation that its website regarding restaurant inspections is incomplete and “not ‘user-friendly.’” The agency said the site was designed to have limited functions, in order to cut down on costs.
The grand jury report, entitled “Restaurant Inspections – What’s Cooking?” was the panel’s first look at restaurant inspections since 2005. Civil grand jury reports are not legally binding and act only to inform the public and government of the issues they highlight.
The grand jury wrote that the number of retail food outlets has jumped from 1,450 to 1,801 — 880 of which are restaurants.
In their report, released in June, grand jurors described harried inspectors who feel they have too little time to do their jobs, as well as an inadequate inspection system that does not bring in as much money as it should.
The county’s Environmental Health Services has nine full-time employees and one half-time worker to inspect all the food outlets, which include bars, farmers markets and temporary events, among others, in addition to swimming pools, water systems and other facilities.
Environmental Health Services tries to scrutinize restaurants at least once every nine months.
In the past year, the agency conducted 1,131 inspections, of which 98 were re-inspections. The venue being scrutinized is supposed to pay for these examinations, but 97 of the 98 re-inspections were undertaken for free, the grand jury wrote.
Fees cover only 75 percent of the costs, the grand jury reported.
Environmental Health Services Director Curtis Batson said he believes that “it would be a heavy burden for restaurants if the agency were to impose more fees or fines,” the grand jury wrote. He prefers to educate vendors, jurors wrote.