Concern is growing that Iowa will fall behind in inspecting restaurants and allow unsanitary operations to go unchecked. That’s enough to make Iowans lose their appetites.
State law mandates at least one inspection annually. For the sake of public health, the state must find the money to hire enough inspectors to meet that minimum requirement for the rest of this fiscal year. Then state lawmakers need to increase restaurant licensing fees to cover the cost of inspections.
The state is scrambling to keep up with inspections after Polk County, tired of losing money on conducting them, voted last month to give the job back to the state. The addition of 2,200 Polk County eateries will nearly double the workload of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals. Earlier this week, Jasper County bailed on inspections, too, adding another 237 restaurants to the state’s duties. More counties could follow that lead.

The department has said it has no money to add to its nine-inspector staff and will try to make do. Since the likely prospect is that overwhelmed inspectors will fail to keep up, that’s not good enough.
The counties’ votes, taken after the state budget was already set for the year, have left the state in the lurch. But for the real culprit in this mess, look over at the Capitol, where worries about special interests once again trumped common sense.
State inspectors and county lobbyists asked the Legislature each of the past two years to raise the maximum $250 annual licensing fee. But lawmakers, concerned about hurting mom-and-pop restaurants, refused.
The restaurant industry supports a more comprehensive approach than raising fees, said Doni DeNucci, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Restaurant Association. She suggested tying licensing fees to employee training. If restaurants require employees to undergo training, they could receive a break on fees. That would help ensure restaurants are clean and safe.
More training is a great idea. But at the end of the day, oversight from an independent third party is still needed. And it’s in restaurants’ best interests to step up and cover that cost.
That’s right. Restaurant owners should tell lawmakers they’re willing to pay higher fees – because too few inspections would leave a bad taste in the mouths of customers. They won’t keep eating out if they’re not confident restaurants are clean. And a higher licensing fee is a small price compared to the potential liability if a restaurant’s negligence leads to an outbreak of a food-borne illness.
Keeping up with inspections and maintaining customers’ confidence will take more inspectors. That will take more money. And that will take lawmakers accepting their responsibility for protecting public health.