By: Lisa Bartlett, OC Board of Supervisors
On Tuesday, July 21st, the Board of Supervisors approved (3-2) the Health Care Agency’s recommendation to adjust Environmental Health Fees in order to provide more frequent and consistent restaurant inspections, as well as to more fairly distribute the fee schedule for other businesses that fall under the County’s Environmental Health inspection.
A number of services are subject to these inspections, including all food facilities, pools, body art businesses, and businesses that manage hazardous material and process solid waste. The focal point of the Board discussion revolved around increasing the restaurant fees to provide for additional inspections per year.
Since January of 2015, the Health Care Agency has averaged 1.6 inspections of complex food facilities per year, falling short of the FDA recommendation of 3 per year. Research has shown a correlation between the decreased number of inspections, and an increase in major violations and noncompliance. The environmental health fees have not been adjusted since 2008, and the department has scaled back operations to meet their budget. Environmental health involves the prevention of hazardous materials from contaminating ground water and other water sources and public swimming pools, in addition to protecting bathers from public health risks and ensuring that drowning prevention equipment is in place. The Health Care Agency staff recommended a 5.47%, 6.11%, and 4.05% increase of environmental health fees over the next three years, respectively, to meet FDA recommendations. My support for the fee adjustment stems from my concern to safeguard public health.
In addition, both the Food Safety Advisory Council, as well as restauranteurs ranging from corporate to individual ownership, supported this increase. Additional inspections will serve as an educational tool for business owners to ensure their compliance with the law and provide quality service to their customers.
The second major discussion of this item revolved around the restaurant public notification system. Although the Board was asked to consider adopting a letter grading system, the majority voted to maintain the current placard system.
Research has been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of both systems, and neither have shown to be more successful than the other. In fact, many of the neighboring counties who operate under the grading method have run into substantive issues. For instance, an “A” grade in Los Angeles may pass for a “B” in San Diego, as there is no consistent point scale across the counties. Further, restaurants with a major violation (improper cooling temperatures, rodents, etc) may still qualify for an “A” under some point systems.
Until a more unified grading system has been established, I decided, along with the majority of the Board, to maintain the current system of Pass, Pass/Reinspection Due, and Closure placards.
The Health Care Agency strives to protect the public to the best of their ability; therefore, transparency is a priority. Anyone can ask an establishment for their inspection report, as well as access the information online at ocfood.com. There is also a new iPhone and Android App which allows access to all inspection reports and lists nearby restaurants based on current location. The app is available through the ocfood.com website.