The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that thousands of Pennsylvania restaurants have been licensed in recent years without the required annual inspections for sanitation and health, according to a new state audit prompted by a deadly outbreak of hepatitis A at a Beaver County restaurant in 2003.
The state’s Department of Agriculture is responsible for overseeing restaurant sanitation in all but six of the state’s 67 counties. The audit found the department renewed the licenses of about 4,000 of more than 17,000 restaurants, bars and retail food purveyors even though they had not been inspected for at least two years.
In Allegheny County, the county health department is responsible for restaurant inspections. All restaurants in the county are inspected at least once a year, and no food distributor is licensed without an inspection, a county official said Thursday. Allegheny County was not included in the audit.
The health department last closed a food establishment for operating without a permit in September, spokesman Dave Zazac said.
Auditor General Jack Wagner said the results show “systemic weakness” in the state Agriculture Department’s inspections process. He called for tougher penalties, more aggressive enforcement and possible changes to the 60-year-old law that governs inspections.
The hepatitis A outbreak at the Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Beaver County was blamed for the deaths of four people and for sickening about 660.
The report found that inspectors routinely put off visiting low- priority restaurants and did not inspect them every year as the law requires.
The audit looked at three years’ worth of records, ending in December 2004. Over that period, no licenses were suspended or revoked, not even for establishments that had inadequate toilet or hand-washing facilities; rodents or insects on the premises; undercooked or spoiled food; unsafe water; or deficient sewage handling.
Agriculture Secretary Dennis C. Wolff said yesterday the department hopes a new information-management system coming online in January will allow the agency to collect inspection information from the field immediately and enable the public to view the results over the Internet.
He said a backlog of about 7,000 facilities that needed to be inspected was reduced by half since early October. The state has 59 inspectors.