Danger for Diners: State Cuts Back Food Inspections

Wednesday, December 10th 2008, 7:46 pm
By: News 9

By Jennifer Pierce, NEWS 9

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Your favorite restaurant may not get the same attention it did in the past. The state health department is cutting back on routine health inspections, and could put diners at risk.

Like many state agencies, the Oklahoma Department of Health is stretching its dollars and employees, which means health inspectors will be more reactive than proactive

Some diners want to know where their food has been and worry fewer inspections will put them at risk.

"I think it's kind of dangerous. How many times have we heard of places being closed down because they found something in the kitchen or whatever?" diner Kris Johnson said.

The Country Cottage, a Locust Grove restaurant, was hit with an e-coli outbreak where one man died and 300 people fell sick. Evidence was later found that there was a 10 month lapse between inspections at the restaurant.

Restaurants normally undergo four inspections a year, but because of lack of funding and manpower, the state can only respond to complaints.

"We place a priority on investigating complaints that indicate there is some harm or potential harm to citizens," Henry Hartsell, Jr. with the Oklahoma State Department of Health said.

And until the state can fill an additional five inspector positions, Hartsell said restaurants, nursing homes, and adult daycare facilities will receive less attention.

"The funding levels haven't increased as fast as our expenses, so we can afford fewer inspectors, fewer surveys than we could a year or two ago," Hartsell said.

That means the public will now have to be the extra eyes and ears to fill the gap.

"It's unfortunate it doesn't have the money it needs to properly inspect and police these establishments," diner Ed Blau said.

The inspector positions are open because inspectors either retired or resigned. The Deputy Commissioner over protective health services hopes to have those positions filled by March of next year.

When those positions are filled, they will be able to handle 2,500 more health inspections, which means restaurants would get an additional one to two inspections a year.