Anchorage Daily News reports that grappling with high staff turnover and job vacancies at the local environmental health office, Alaska in 2005 inspected fewer than one in five restaurants, stores and other food-serving establishments in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
The year before that, fewer than one in 10 were inspected.
Kimberly Stryker, associate coordinator for the state Division of Environmental Health food safety and sanitation program, was quoted as saying, “Consumers think that we’re out there more than we are. It’s the sad reality.”
The story adds that when inspections did occur in the Valley over the past two years, many were spurred by complaints from customers who reported food poisoning, rodents and, in one case, a Band-Aid in the spaghetti.
A sampling of recent Mat-Su inspection reports showed several restaurants cited for improperly heated or chilled food, a burger joint improperly cooking meat, and a fast-food place with not only a pest problem but no hot water anywhere in the facility for employees to wash their hands.
Food safety program manager Ron Klein was cited as saying he would like the state to visit every “high-risk” facility about once a year.
Janice Adair, who runs the Washington state environmental health division and was the Alaska environmental health director for eight years, until 2002, was quoted as saying, “Wow. I’m sorry to hear that,” when told that last year, the state inspected fewer than one in four high-risk facilities in the Mat-Su, adding, “The Legislature should certainly be aghast.”
The story notes that in 2004, only 30 of the 259 high-risk facilities then documented in the Valley were inspected at least once.
In Washington, each county handles its own inspections, but most high-risk facilities are inspected about twice a year, Adair said. If a county in Washington had the Valley’s inspection rate, she said, that county’s commissioners and maybe its health officer would likely be out of a job.
In Alaska, only Anchorage handles its own inspections; the state is responsible for the rest. Inspecting each restaurant and school and deli in Alaska’s far-flung towns and villages is an exhaustive and expensive job, and health officials said they don’t expect their budget to get any bigger.
So instead of hiring more people, the state is making an effort to de-emphasize inspections in favor of new rules meant to encourage restaurateurs and other operators to better train their employees and police themselves.
Though the regulations are still in the planning stages, the state may require food service workers to pass a test and earn a certification card. Each restaurant could also be required to have at least one supervisor who earns a more advanced certification, usually after taking an eight-hour class.
Fines of up to $1,000 per violation are also in the works.