Following years of declining inspections by Orange County officials, local restaurants experienced a sharp rise last year in serious food safety violations like cockroach infestations, according to the Orange County Register.
There was a 38 percent jump in businesses, mostly restaurants, forced to temporarily close due to major health violations when compared to the previous year, the Register reported:
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.
While the federal Food and Drug Administration recommends that restaurants be inspected four times each year, most in Orange County are only inspected twice a year, the Register reported.
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.
Inspections could get even less frequent if county supervisors don't approve an upcoming request for a fee increase, according to Richard Sanchez of the county Health Care Agency:
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.”
Supervisor Michelle Steel has voted against fee increases since taking office, while other supervisors, like Shawn Nelson and Lisa Bartlett, say certain fee increases are important to avoid having costs shift to taxpayers.