Orange County supervisors are considering whether to hire more food safety inspectors, and potentially switch to an A-B-C letter-grade system like those in neighboring counties, following a significant uptick in major violations at Orange County restaurants.
While there appeared to be general support for adding inspectors, letter-grades proved to be much more controversial given opposition from Supervisor Andrew Do.
An Orange County Register article in April revealed a 38 percent uptick last year in eateries forced to close because of major food safety violations.
The violations posed an immediate danger to public health, like cockroach and rodent infestations, sewage overflows, and unsafe cleaning and food storage practices, according to officials.
Following the Register report, county supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer took up the issue, scheduling a meeting June 2 with his colleagues on how to respond.
To kick off the discussion, county staff said the jump in violations comes as inspectors are visiting restaurants at a much lower rate than federal guidelines recommend.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends two inspections per year for non-chain restaurants, and three per year for chains, officials said.
But Orange County restaurants are being inspected just 1.6 times per year, down from two times per year last year, according to county Environmental Health Director Denise Fennessy, who oversees food safety inspections at 15,000 food-serving facilities across the county.
Studies have shown that a decrease in frequency of inspections leads to an increase in violations, she added.
The lower rate of inspections has a compounding effect, Fennessy said. As major violations increase, inspections become even more infrequent because it’s taking inspectors longer to conduct each review.
The county has a budget for 55 full-time inspectors, though five to seven of those positions are unfilled, according to Fennessy. To bring inspections back up to two per year per facility, the county would have to fill the five to seven empty positions, she said.
And to meet the FDA’s three-per-year standard for chain restaurants, the county would have to hire an additional 12 inspectors, Fennessy said.
County staff plan to come before supervisors in July to request a fee increase to bring inspections up to FDA standards.
Increasing the county’s inspections seemed to have support from a majority of supervisors, with Do saying that the county should be brought up to industry standards on inspections.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, meanwhile, said three inspections per year “is probably what we want to shoot for.”
But the question of shifting to a letter-grades system – which is used by all four counties that border Orange County – proved to be much more controversial.
Do said his colleagues should be cognizant of the costs that a letter-grade system could bring to businesses, and that it could “do more harm than good” by leading businesses that get less than A ratings to seek re-inspections that strain staff resources.
He also cited a 114-page article in The Yale Law Journal that found “serious flaws” with letter-grade systems, including that it “shifts inspection resources away from higher health hazards to resolve grade disputes.”
Do has experience in the restaurant business, having co-owned a Lee’s Sandwiches franchise with the husband of his predecessor as supervisor, Janet Nguyen, who is now a state senator.
Lee’s, which is based in Garden Grove within Do’s district, is recalling more than 465,000 pounds of meat, after federal regulators found that it was being modified without inspection, and then wrongly stamped with a federal certification.
Spitzer seemed to disagree with Do, saying Orange County should be in line with the approach of Los Angeles County, which has had a letter-grades system for about 20 years, and other nearby counties.
“I just think it has been in existence long enough and we’re completely out of step with the rest of our counterparts in Southern California,” Spitzer said.
As for the Yale article, it’s likely to be dissected at a future meeting.
“No more law journal articles, will ya?” Spitzer jested at Do at the end of Tuesday’s meeting. “I just looked at it, by the way. It has more footnotes than substance, okay? The whole thing’s footnotes.”
“That’s what you want,” Do replied.
Nelson, who along with Spitzer and Do is an attorney, also jumped in.
“I am highlighting feverishly,” Nelson said of the article.
A follow-up discussion of the issue is expected when the fee increase request comes to supervisors in July.