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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lack of inspections downright nauseating

For a place that loves to regulate just about everything, Hawai'i's inattention to restaurants is both bewildering and horrifying.

Nine inspectors for 9,000 food establishments is lunacy, but typical of the upside-down prioritization of the bureaucracy. Nine workers out of 2,000 in the state Department of Health actually go out and inspect restaurants.

For some reason, we've accepted the occasional "food poisoning" as the price of dinner out without ever demanding more aggressive regulation of restaurants and vendors. Even the distasteful news about rats prancing on food carts in Chinatown was but a fleeting headline.

So everyone can take heart and perhaps fewer antacids with news that the Legislature is working to pass House Bill 2688, which would give the state Health Department what it needs to improve oversight of the state's food establishments.

It wouldn't take much to improve the status quo, which is abysmal. According to the records at the sanitation branch, the average eatery has been inspected once every 30 months. Anyone can imagine how bad things can get if there's no accountability for more than two years. It's not a pretty picture.

The bill would direct much more of the money collected in the relatively cheap registration fees paid by food establishments (as low as $50) to provide better inspection services. It also would allow that fee to be increased to hire more food safety inspectors, a cadre that has shrunk appallingly in the last 20 years from 23 statewide to just nine.

There would also be money to build an online database allowing the public to easily research the inspection reports on any establishment. This is an excellent idea, already modeled by other jurisdictions. (Visit http://tchd.org/restaurants.html to see how one health agency does it.)

In an odd twist, the Lingle administration is divided on this plan. Health officials generally favor the bill, while the state budget office opposes it because the general fund would no longer be able to scoop any revenue above the current $300,000 ceiling. The bill would raise to $2.445 million the threshhold at which the state could start tapping the licensing money for the general fund.

There can be some flexibility negotiated here. But not too much. Food establishments all pay general excise taxes into the general fund, so it's unfair that they should be assessed an additional fee and not get the benefit of most of that money.

But the situation needs to get fixed now, before there's an outbreak of something worse than a sore stomach.