As Supervisors Debate, Experts Say Health Risks Continue at Orange County Restaurants

3

The health of people who eat at restaurants in Orange County is at risk because county officials don’t inspect the facilities often enough, experts told the Board of Supervisors this week.

Supervisors in July are to consider increasing fees for restaurant owners and operators to get more money to hire more restaurant inspectors. They’ve indicated their support for more inspections to get the county in line with industry standards.

But Supervisor Andrew Do – who used to own a restaurant that earned health code violations – is building a case against a ranking system that would mandate businesses display earned letter grades to their customers, and board chairman Todd Spitzer warned this week that increasing inspections will come at a steep price.

‘You’re going to be shocked by the fee increases, OK? Spitzer said. ‘They’re substantial.

He predicted a thorny debate about this politically charged question: ‘Are you going to vote to pass these fees onto the businesses?

Spitzer called for this week’s work session on food safety after an April 18 Orange County Register article reported a steep climb in forced restaurant closures and major food safety violations between 2013 and 2014. The increase coincides with years of declining oversight by county officials.

The county currently charges dozens of fees, ranging from $41 to upwards of $1,600, to inspect a variety of types and sizes of businesses and their inventory.

Supervisors twice last year rejected proposals to increase those fees to give the Health Care Agency more money to hire more inspectors. They’ve also declined to adopt a public grading system for restaurants that’s used in other regions like Los Angeles and San Diego counties, which contradicts a 2008 recommendation from a citizen grand jury.

Orange County is the only major Southern California county that doesn’t use letter grades.

Spitzer doesn’t expect that to change when supervisors reexamine the issue next month: He says he supports letter grades, but he doesn’t believe enough of his colleagues do. And while supervisors indicated Tuesday they want to get inspections back in line with industry standards, Do made it clear he doesn’t support a grading system.

Do has experience with inspections: he used to own Lee’s Sandwiches in Stanton with Thomas Bonikowski, who is married to Do’s ally and predecessor, state Sen. Janet Nguyen, who voted against restaurant grades while supervisor. The franchise earned health code violations under Do’s ownership, according to county records.

The company recently recalled 465,483 pounds of mislabeled poultry, beef and pork after U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say they discovered violations dating back four years, which includes time when Do owned the restaurant.

Health Care Agency officials haven’t told supervisors what to do, but they were clear Tuesday that they believe grading systems help ensure compliance with food safety standards, and that the county’s current inspection schedule is putting people at risk.

‘We believe that anything below two inspections per year would be a risk to public health, said Director Richard Sanchez.

Spitzer summarized: ‘You’re basically telling us we are risking public health then.

Health officials want to inspect all restaurants at least twice a year, and federal recommendations call for businesses that serve more than just a limited menu to be inspected at three or four times a year.

But right now, the agency has about 50 inspectors for more than 15,000 restaurants, bars, markets and bakeries, and facilities are inspected an average of 1.6 times each year, said Denise Fennessy, the Health Care Agency’s director of environmental health. Fennessy told supervisors the county will need about 12 more inspectors to examine restaurants at least three times a year.

Do has posted reports on his 1st District website – the district includes the vibrant restaurant tourism area of Little Saigon – that refute claims that grading systems prevent food-borne illnesses. Most restaurants earn high grades, but people still get sick there sometimes, anyway.

Do also questioned the fairness of inspections.

‘The standards are objectively defined, but they are subjectively enforced, Do said. ‘Somebody may be a very tough scorer and then somebody may be very lenient.

 

posted by Andrea Gonzalez 6/10/15