County health officials say they are improving their efforts to inspect local food establishments following two recent years of incomplete inspections.
Franklin County Health Department Director Angie Hittson said all of the food establishments will be inspected at least once a year now.
“I’m going to manage that and make sure it is done,” Hittson said, adding that she thinks this will be a “positive year” for the health department.
Lack of Inspections
The Franklin County Health Department failed to inspect all local food establishments in 2011 and 2012, records show.
In those years, there were between 460 and 500 food establishments in the county. But in 2011 there were only 186 inspections conducted and in 2012, 368, according to health department records.
Under the food code that the county was operating under at the time, the establishments should have been inspected at least once a year, said Tony Buel, epidemiologist with the health department.
Hittson said one of her first actions as the new health department director was to bring on an additional inspector.
She said the county now has one full-time and one part-time inspector. She said she would like to bring on one more full-time inspector.
Hittson is working with the county commission to find funding to hire another inspector, hopefully this year.
Meanwhile, she said the county is working with the state department of health on a program to provide additional inspectors. Under the program, the state can send inspectors to Franklin County to help out with local inspections as part of their training.
As the new director, Hittson said getting the environmental division, which does food inspections, “caught up” is one of her focus areas.
Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer regrets that all of the food establishments were not inspected those years.
“Obviously, I wish that wasn’t the case,” Griesheimer said. “We are going to strive to do better.”
But he said, “It is what it is.”
The county can’t be “everything to everybody,” Griesheimer added.
Majority Not Inspected
Based on the numbers provided by the health department, not even half of the county’s food establishments were inspected in 2011. The food establishments could include restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores.
Hittson said there actually may have been more inspections done but not entered into the database. However, there is no information to indicate that happened.
At the time of the lack of inspections, Hittson was an administrative supervisor working under former Health Department Director Conn Roden who retired this month.
Roden was over the environmental program that dealt with restaurant inspections, she said, adding that he had a lot of expertise in that area.
Hittson said she did not have any involvement in the food inspections during the years when there was a lack of inspections done.
However, she said she and Roden knew about a lack of inspections taking place. The health department’s food inspector was on leave a lot during that time, she said.
“Budget restrictions” prevented the health department from hiring another inspector, Hittson said.
In other years, the following number of inspections were conducted: 2005, 477; 2006, 549; 2007, 560; 2008, 563; 2009, 625; and in 2010, 698.
As of Wednesday, the county had conducted 183 inspections for 2013. Currently, there are about 487 food establishments in the county, Buel said.
Griesheimer said it is the health department director’s responsibility to make sure food establishments are inspected, but he said ultimately, the buck stops with the county commissioners.
If someone must be blamed for the lack of inspections in 2011 and 2012, Griesheimer said it should be him since he is the top official in the county.
Hittson and Roden did the best job they could with what they had to work with, Griesheimer said. The county commission sets the health department’s budget, Griesheimer noted.
He praised Roden’s tenure at the health department, saying he “had a great career here.”
Griesheimer said he became aware around January of this year that not all the food businesses were inspected in 2011 and 2012.
Roden was absent much of 2011 with an illness. During Roden’s absence, Hittson was in charge, Griesheimer said.
Buel said the person who was doing the inspections those years no longer works at the health department.
No spike in food-borne illnesses was reported to the health department during the years inspections were lacking, Buel said.
New Code Adopted
A new food code was adopted for the first time in more than 17 years by the Franklin County Commission Tuesday.
“It’s a more detailed code,” Buel said.
Griesheimer said the new code has nothing to do with the problems with the food inspections. The new code was adopted to clear up ambiguity and mirror state regulations, he said.
The new food rules adopted this week change the annual licensing fees for restaurants.
Previously, the fees were based on a restaurant’s sales, and now they are based on the level of risk for each food establishment.
For instance, if the eatery sells prepackaged foods that is going to be lower risk than a place that serves seafood, Hittson explained.
The fees are based on the amount of risk because the higher the risk, the more time it takes health department officials to conduct annual inspections.
The level of risk associated with a food establishment is based on factors such as whether the restaurant has a buffet or salad bar, the number of people served and previous violations, Buel said.
Annual license fees for low, medium and high risk restaurants are $100, $150 and $200, respectively.
For some establishments the new rules will result in higher fees while others will be the same or lower. Previously the fees ranged from $50 to $300.
If a violation is found, there is a follow-up inspection to see if the problem has been corrected, Buel said.
So far this year, the county health department has been informed of six illnesses that could have been linked to food. Those included two salmonellas and four campylobacter cases. While those could have been caused by food, Buel said they also could have been brought on by playing with baby ducks or chickens or pushing shopping carts that had juices from raw chicken spilled on the handle.