Hawaii moves to beef up restaurant inspections
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
On the heels of figures that show a staggering 82 percent of food establishments inspected on O'ahu last fiscal year had major violations, lawmakers are looking to beef up the state's restaurant inspections system.
A bill moving through the Legislature would allow the Health Department to use the fees it gets from restaurants to hire more inspectors and put food violation records online.
The legislation would also open the door to raising fees for restaurants in a bid to subsidize an inspection system — now paid for by taxpayers — that has weathered spending cuts for the last 20 years and has seen its cadre of state food safety inspectors on O'ahu shrink from 23 in 1988 to just nine today.
"The horror story is major violations are so commonplace," said Peter Oshiro, supervisor of the Department of Health's Sanitation Branch, which oversees food establishment inspections. "It's shocking. It's endangering the public. With more frequent inspections, you can bring that number down."
The Health Department also says that although the high level of violations is distressing, residents shouldn't panic: Most restaurants resolve major violations immediately.
Lawmakers and state food sanitation personnel say the state is long overdue for improvements to the way it inspects restaurants, and argue that violations wouldn't be nearly as high if there were more food inspectors.
New figures reported to the Legislature show that of the 3,772 O'ahu establishments that were inspected in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009, about 82 percent had major violations that ranged from improper employee hygiene to unsafe cooking methods to storing rotten food. A major violation is issued for any practice that can lead to a food-borne illness, the state said.
The other islands didn't fare much better, and Kaua'i did worse.
There are about 5,860 restaurants on O'ahu, and 9,075 statewide.
Oshiro, of DOH, said major violations have been high for years.
In fiscal year 2008, 92 percent of O'ahu restaurants inspected were issued major violations. But that was in a year when about 46 percent of restaurants were inspected. In fiscal year 2009, 64 percent of restaurants were inspected.
Figures for previous years were not immediately available.
Restaurant industry experts point out that there haven't been any recent high-profile incidents in the state of people getting ill after eating out. They also question whether it's wise to expand inspections during a budget crisis.
Still, concerns over the number of state food safety inspectors resurfaced late last year in the wake of a rat problem at Chinatown's Kekaulike Market. The issue also came to the forefront in 2008, when Sekiya's Restaurant in Kaimukī closed for days after seven people were sickened by E. coli.
A measure moving through the Legislature, HB 2688, would allow the Health Department to use the $600,000 a year it gets in fees from some 9,000 restaurants statewide to hire more inspectors and put its records online.
Right now, that money can't be spent on operational costs. Half of it is set aside for education, and the rest goes to the general fund.
Lawmakers say a key improvement under the bill would be creating an online system for records, which would allow the public to see the violations a restaurant has received. The state has been talking about implementing such an online system since 2000, but hasn't had the money to be able to do it.
If someone wants to see those records, they have to go to the Health Department and request them. They'll also face a 50-cent-per-page charge for copies.
State Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said improving access to violation information should be coupled with increasing the number of food inspectors and stepping up inspections of restaurants.
"The public expects the state is doing their job in ensuring eating establishments are safe to eat in," Ige said. "To me, the computer system is important because it allows the public to be aware. But really, it's all part and parcel of the whole ... program of trying" to improve the inspection program.
Oshiro argues that the root of the problem is the shortage of inspectors.
More inspectors, he said, would mean restaurants would not only be more mindful of food safety, but would get more education through more frequent inspections. As it is, with 651 food establishments per inspector on O'ahu, most restaurants can expect a routine inspection every 30 months or so.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that a food safety inspector be responsible for no more than 150 establishments. Industry guidelines also recommend establishments be inspected at least annually — and up to four times a year for higher-risk establishments.
High-risk establishments include those that handle food that must be reheated or food that is prepared hot and stored for hours until it is eaten.
Laurence Lau, DOH deputy director of environmental health, said the department has "significant concerns" about the statistics on major violations.
But he also points out the sanitation branch isn't the only state office struggling to fulfill its mission with fewer staff members and less funding.
The sanitation branch gets about $2 million a year in state funds.
"We're doing the best we can" with the money available, Lau said.
The Health Department has supported the measure to use fees from restaurants for operational costs. In addition to funnelling more money to the sanitation branch, the bill would allow DOH to increase what it charges restaurants for licensing and permitting by raising a cap on the fund.
The cap, now set at $300,000, would be raised to $2.4 million.
FEES MAY INCREASE
Restaurants, from chain operations to small establishments, pay $52 a year on average in fees to the Health Department. Meanwhile, DOH collects little in fines. Though a fine for a major violation is $1,000, restaurants are often given two chances to correct the violation before a fine is levied, and most do, officials said.
Lau stressed that the Department of Health is not yet proposing any increase in fees.
Meanwhile, the food safety bill could hit an additional hurdle even if lawmakers approve it. A similar bill was vetoed by the governor last year, and Department of Budget and Finance Director Georgina Kawamura has raised concerns about the new bill, saying it would limit the flexibility of the executive branch to allocate money based on "statewide priorities."
There are also mixed reactions to the bill from the restaurant industry, especially to the prospect of violations going online and fees being increased.
The Hawai'i Restaurant Association has long raised concerns that providing access to violations to consumers may do more harm than good, especially if minor violations are misinterpreted as bigger safety issues.
Gail Chew, executive director of the association, questioned why people are calling for a more stringent system in tough economic times and added that she doesn't like the idea of restaurant fees subsidizing inspections.
"With all the priorities that we have, the question really becomes is this a problem? Tell me what is not working now," Chew said. "Are we having problems that we need to increase the number of inspectors?"
But some restaurants and their workers say the system does need improvements.
"I think it would be nice to have more inspectors so they could let people know who is offering the best product," said Karina Carvajal, general manager of Auntie Pasto's Restaurant on Beretania Street.
Carvajal said she has worked in many other states, and most had much more robust restaurant inspection systems.
Of the system in the Islands, she said, "There are some definite issues that need to be addressed."