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Health Departments Lacking Teeth February 3, 2009

Posted by Michael Valladares in Blogging, Environmental Health.
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I just started working for a health department, and I’m surprised at the lack of and absence of power we have to enforce our Maryland food regulations. At best as a health inspector I can suspend or withhold a facility’s license until “compliance”. Now, compliance is a very gray area, subject to any interpretation and without validation.

Even after the fact a facility is ordered to close nothing prevents the food facility to open to the public other than a piece of paper and the threat of legal action. It surprises me the time and effort which is undertaken to try or better yet “beg” a facility to comply with food laws.
For example, if a food facility has a roach and vermin infestation the facility is given thirty days to correct the issue.

If I come back and find the same problem I will generously give you an additional two weeks, and after the two weeks if the violation still persists I will give an additional week. After a month of extension I am given permission to threaten you with an “administrative hearing”, which is basically a conference call with the Health Director. Usually the facility fails to call in on the conference date, and the health department is forced to send a certified letter requesting the presence of the food facility’s owner.

After all is said and done a period of two months can pass, and that is if the facility did not seek legal counsel. Once attorneys are involved there are two outcomes, none of which ever favor the health department. One, the health department now realizing it has to deal with legal representation backs down to avoid confrontation, but by doing so inadvertently establishes precedent. In the second outcome the health department may suggest to lower the standards of compliance, and what is acceptable, say “100 roaches instead of 1,000” or “1 mouse rather than 4”. In both instances the health department backs down, and the public must unknowingly accept their fate at the hands of the food facility.
The solution is to give State Health Departments more man power, the power to fine, seek criminal charges, and actually give the State a backbone. Something akin to what the FDA is now undergoing with the salmonella outbreak:

There is a criminal investigation that has been initiated through our office of criminal investigation at the FDA. They have to work through the Department of Justice to develop a case and prosecute, if that’s what it comes to,” said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “It’s an open investigation.” … the penalties available under current law are limited to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail for each misdemeanor and a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for a felony. It was unclear yesterday whether prosecutors could potentially file separate counts based on each contaminated lot. The case illustrates the need for greater penalties…
“The penalties are relatively light,” he said. “If the facts are true as have been reported, you have a company that was knowingly and recklessly shipping products from a facility known to be contaminated with salmonella, sending over 100 people to the hospital and killing as many as eight,” he said. “The question is whether the criminal remedies in the Food and Drug Act are sufficient, given the severity of the harm.”

The state of Georgia, understands firsthand how this works:

In Georgia, the state Agriculture Department inspects food processing facilities on behalf of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But the state agency —- which also promotes the sale of Georgia products —- employs just 60 “sanitarians,” as the inspectors are called, to check on 16,000 processing plants, grocery stores and food warehouses statewide.
Each sanitarian, earning an average of $36,000 a year, is expected to conduct about 530 inspections a year —- one every 3 1/2 hours, including travel time, each working day of the year.
Even when inspections reveal violations of food safety laws, the state rarely imposes fines, records show.

The regulations are present, but what we need is the ability to enforce stricter measures of punishments either monetary or criminal. And hopefully then facilities will have a greater regard for food safety.

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