Melinda Rogers of The Forum reports that Clay County has consistently failed to perform inspections on 119 food, beverage and lodging establishments over the past five years.
A Forum investigation into county records dating back to 2002 show the county’s lone food inspector barely grazed the surface of examining dozens of schools, restaurants, nursing homes and other institutions that require regular inspections under Minnesota law.
The Forum in April began reviewing records for 86 Clay County establishments and 33 establishments in Wilkin County that the Clay County inspector is contractually required to examine.
The records don’t include statistics for the city of Moorhead, which handles its own food safety inspections.
Documents obtained through a Minnesota Data Practices Act request reveal the following:
In Clay County, only 29 percent of licensed establishments have received the proper number of inspections since 2002.
Of 41 Clay County establishments classified as “high hazard” since 2002, none have received the proper number of inspections as outlined in Minnesota law.
“High hazard” establishments — which include many schools, hotels and restaurants — must be inspected annually to prevent potential public health problems, the law states.
In Wilkin County, only24 percent of licensed establishments have received the proper number of inspections since 2002.
Of 18 establishments deemed “high hazard” in Wilkin County, none have received the proper number of inspections since 2002.
Bruce Jaster, the county inspector for all 119 establishments, said the issue is broader than inspections simply not being completed.
The county doesn’t provide adequate resources to meet inspection requirements, said Jaster, the county’s director of environmental health.
“Everything boils down to the amount of time allocated for one person to do,” he said. “There’s enough work for another person.”
County officials who know about the inspection deficiencies say the information is troubling. Jaster should have told superiors he was overwhelmed, they say.
“We should have been conducting these inspections,” said Clay County Administrator Vijay Sethi, who learned of lapses in inspections three months ago from the county’s environmental health department.
“Each establishment needs to be inspected every so often (according to law), and I understand we were not meeting that schedule.”
Clay and Wilkin counties’ public health directors discovered inspection gaps in January when routinely reviewing various aspects of the public health departments.
Public health directors Kathy McKay and Shirley Larson immediately requested a meeting with Jaster and other county officials.
Inspections are necessary to ensure businesses are clean and safe, said Larson, the Wilkin County public health director.
Jaster, employed by Clay County since 1987, said he gradually fell behind on inspections because other aspects of his job are time-consuming and demanding.
Besides food, beverage and lodging inspections, Jaster is charged with examining septic systems and swimming pools. He also operates the county’s water testing laboratory.
In March, the water lab was temporarily shut down for violating several state Department of Health certification standards.
It’s now back in operation, but Jaster said some of the water lab issues stemmed from him spending time away from the lab trying to complete other inspections.
A licensed sanitarian must complete food, beverage and lodging inspections. Jaster is the only one in Clay County.
On average each year there are 120 food, beverage and lodging inspections; 1,000 water tests; and 150 on-site sewage inspections that Jaster needs to complete, Sethi said.
Clay County is evaluating how other counties with similar demographics staff inspectors.
A report is expected at a county board meeting in coming weeks.
The county’s agricultural inspector, Kent Jensen, is in the process of obtaining his sanitarian’s license and soon will help Jaster with inspections and the water lab, Sethi said.
It’s difficult to find help to conduct inspections because sanitarians must go through an arduous process for licensure, Sethi and Jaster say.
“When you look at the requirements it takes for an individual to be qualified to do the inspections, it’s a lengthy process,” Jaster said. “There’s a fair amount of training involved.”
Inspecting an establishment typically takes between 30 minutes and two hours, depending on a place’s condition, Jaster said.
Filing reports with the state requires additional time and paperwork after the actual inspection.
People at establishments where Jaster is required to inspect recognize examinations can be delayed, said Superintendent Joel Young of the Campbell-Tintah School District.
“We’re at the mercy of whatever they can afford to do,” Young said of county inspectors.
Jaster has visited the School District three times since 2002. According to state law, the school should have received five inspections, one each year.
Young, a former Fargo health department employee familiar with inspection requirements, stressed that just because establishments aren’t examined regularly doesn’t mean they are unclean or unsafe.
Inspections help ensure establishments are complying with proper serving and sanitation techniques, he said.
The county experienced similar problems completing food, beverage and lodging inspections in 1991.
Budget constraints that year forced the county to eliminate an inspector position, putting staffing levels for inspections similar to what they are now, Jaster said.
However, county officials say Jaster failed to tell them his workload was unmanageable.
Neither Sethi nor Tim Magnusson, the county’s planning director and Jaster’s supervisor, were informed by Jaster about problems.
Clay County commissioners also weren’t informed about inspection failures until recently.
“I don’t know a lot about it other than we’re having Vijay check into it,” said Mike McCarthy, the commission’s chairman. “It was kind of a surprise that they weren’t getting done.”
In addition, Jaster and the county’s environmental planning office briefly contracted with the city of Moorhead to conduct certain inspections from October 2005 to January, while the city worked on filling an environmental health practitioner position.
Jaster helped Moorhead with about 20 hours of work over four months, said Lisa Vatnsdal, the city’s director of neighborhood services.
Commissioner Ben Brunsvold said he questions the county’s brief relationship with the city, because Jaster has fallen so far behind on his county inspections.
“It’s scandalous that some (county) establishments have not been inspected for two years or more,” said Brunsvold, who learned of the issue while serving on the county’s public health advisory committee.
“I’m really disgusted with all of this. I’m disturbed by it.”
Jaster said he didn’t discuss lapses in inspections with his superiors. He hoped the county would budget for additional staffing to help him complete his job duties. At that time his office was under the umbrella of Clay County Public Health.
Inspections were recently delegated to a separate county planning and environmental programs department.
According to Sethi, the county is taking necessary steps to address the issue.
County officials in January set deadlines for Jaster to catch up on inspections.
Jaster has also contacted the Minnesota Department of Health and a regional consultant in Fergus Falls, Minn., is monitoring the county’s progress on regaining compliance with state inspection standards.
Should Clay County fail to catch up with the inspections, the state could ultimately revoke its delegation agreement with the county and takeover examinations.
“The delegation is an agreement. It can be terminated by either party,” said Gary Edwards, a supervisor in the Minnesota Department of Health’s Division of Environmental Health in St. Paul.
“It is the state’s responsibility, if they don’t get the job done.”
Edwards said there’s a process for determining whether a county is adhering to its delegation agreement and whether the state needs to take measures to step in.
Jaster is slated to have needed inspections completed in “the next few months,” Sethi said.
But that doesn’t make up for what hasn’t been done in the past five years, Brunsvold said.
Brunsvold said the county needs to step up its response to the problem. He said he asked Sethi for information on when the county has last been up to date with inspections and his request was brushed aside.
“The county is treating this like a public relations issue and not a performance issue,” Brunsvold said.
“Food and beverage inspections are a serious public safety issue. If they’re not done, potentially the public isn’t protected.”
An example of improper food handling was highlighted last week, when Moorhead’s Speak Easy restaurant briefly closed after nearly 40 customers reported illness.
The Minnesota Department of Health believes a virus outbreak occurred after food was contaminated when someone didn’t wash their hands.
Moorhead inspectors had been to the restaurant three times since February and had discovered several deficiencies in the way food was handled or stored.
Although the county hasn’t completed many inspections, there haven’t been reports of food-borne illness in Clay and Wilkin counties, McKay and Larson say.
No reports of such illnesses were filed with the county, they said.
Concerns over food safety prompted Bismarck officials to announce last week they will start posting notices about restaurants with critical violations on the city’s Web site.
Brunsvold said he’s concerned about how the county’s inspection failures went unnoticed for so long.
“I consider this a serious breach of responsibility. We need to deal with it accordingly,” he said.
Sethi and Magnusson say they’re confident the problem is being resolved.
Magnusson said Jaster’s position was only recently transferred to his oversight and that he didn’t realize there were issues with inspection completion.
He said he now will require Jaster, whose current salary is $55,515, to provide regular status reports on examinations.
“I’m not exactly sure what the oversight has been in the past four to five years,” Magnusson said. “It won’t happen again.”