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California county sees spike in restaurant sanitation issues

County health inspectors logged steep climbs in forced restaurant closures and major food safety violations last year, raising new concerns about Orange County’s shrunken oversight of restaurants and other food vendors.

According to county data obtained by the Register under public records laws, the number of businesses that were forced to temporarily close due to major health violations spiked by 38 percent from the previous year, to 722. Most businesses were small or medium-sized restaurants.

Despite a similar number of overall inspections last year, the amount of major violations found at all food facilities in the county grew by 11 percent, to 14,800. Unsafe storage temperatures, poor washing and pests drove much of the increase.

Inspectors issued 779 major violations for cockroaches, 189 for rodents and nine for other infestations in critical areas – 58 percent more than the previous year and nearly double the total in 2012. Major violations are conditions that pose an immediate danger to public health.

The rise in restaurant closures and violations comes after years of declining oversight by Orange County health officials. The county once inspected restaurants and other food facilities four times a year – in sync with FDA recommendations. Today, most restaurants are inspected half as often.

County inspectors last year were responsible for monitoring food sanitation practices at 15,000 businesses, including restaurants, supermarkets, catering services and taverns. Inspection reports are searchable on the county’s website by name. Recent permit suspensions are listed as well.

Inspectors closed 105 establishments in the past two months, mostly for cockroach and other pest infestations, according to online data. About half were allowed to re-open on the same day of their permit suspension.

INCREASE NOT CLEAR

Health officials aren’t sure what prompted the increase in violations last year, saying many factors influence the number of health permit suspensions and violations each year. But they said some cash-strapped restaurants may have cut food safety expenses like pest control to stay afloat and county inspectors have trimmed outreach efforts because of budget cuts.

“We’re out there giving them (businesses) the tools they need to come into compliance,” said Denise Fennessy, who oversees the county’s food safety inspections. “They’re so focused on their production of food that sometimes they’re not able to make all the corrections.”

Fennessy said she would like inspectors to spend more time with business owners, helping them understand food safety laws and the reasons for those laws. But staffing losses have increased pressure on inspectors to complete their work quicker.

Jennifer Muir, a spokeswoman for the union that represents health inspectors, called the spike in closures and violations “alarming” and said it highlights broader funding problems in an agency responsible for overseeing one of Orange County’s most vibrant industries.

“Just imagine how much more frightening those numbers would be if the department were given the resources they need to protect consumers,” Muir said.

Health officials have consistently fallen short on annual food safety goals outlined in budget documents. In each of the past three years, they hoped that fewer than one in every six restaurants would be issued a major violation. Instead, it has been one in every three.

“We call it kind of a stretch goal,” said Richard Sanchez, a top county health official. “I don’t know that we had an expectation to meet that with our current program.”

Higher costs of retired employees and stagnant business fees are partly responsible for the drop in inspections. Health permit fees, which largely fund the county’s inspection program, have not been adjusted since 2008. Restaurants pay a range of $561 to $925 annually, depending on their size.

SEEKING HIGHER FEES

Though the county Board of Supervisors twice rejected proposed fee hikes last year, Sanchez said his office intends to bring another fee increase before the supervisors this year. Without it, he said, some restaurants could be inspected just once a year starting in July.

“We’re still at the level ... that we felt was pretty much the minimum we could provide and feel comfortable,” Sanchez said. “If we got down to one inspection per year, we may look at alternatives to our inspection program because I don’t think that would provide the surveillance that we would feel comfortable (with) from a public health standpoint.”

Matt Sutton, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Association, which represents more than 450 businesses in Orange County, said the rise in major violations warrants further examination by health officials. But it doesn’t necessarily indicate problems with the county’s current inspection program, he said.

Still, Sutton said more frequent inspections are “probably better for some” businesses, and the organization understands the need for a fee increase to keep up routine inspections. It just needs to be consistent and manageable for owners, Sutton said.

“We know that if the county remains unable to do frequent visits, that’s a problem for all of us,“ Sutton said. “I believe there will be a fee increase. It just depends how it’s structured.”

The Register requested to speak with each of the county’s five supervisors this week about the rise in health permit suspensions and major violations. None agreed to be interviewed.

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