Auditor raises question about health inspections

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The state health agency agreed Monday to change some enforcement procedures amid criticism about the department’s handling of food safety violations at restaurants across Louisiana.

A legislative audit released Monday found that of the nearly 450,000 violations from fiscal year 2009 to 2011, the state Office of Public Health issued four compliance orders to retail food establishments. Retail food establishments include restaurants, delicatessens, cafeterias, and other businesses that sell ready-to-eat food.

In addition, about one-third of the establishments had repeat critical violations from fiscal year 2010 to 2011. However, the Office of Public Health, or OPH, “has not routinely prescribed any penalties or other consequences for establishments with repeat violations,” the audit reported. OPH is part of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, called DHH.

The report recommends levying the penalties allowed in law and charging re-inspection and other fees to encourage compliance.

“It communicates that correcting the situation is not that important,” Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said Monday of the audit, which was released Monday after DHH officials had an opportunity to review the report.

“It also tells you: We are really not about changing behavior,” Purpera said.

State Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein said Monday the audit would assist his office in making necessary changes to the program to ensure that retail food establishments are meeting required standards. He said a reorganization is already under way.

Greenstein said the agency also is looking into potential rule or law changes aimed at “streamlining” a now cumbersome process to determine enforcement actions and an additional fee for re-inspections.

In spite of the shortfalls the auditor noted, Greenstein said OPH is doing its job protecting people from the consumption of contaminated food. “We don’t have a lot of foodborne illness outbreaks,” he said.

The audit also says that the state’s Eat Safe Louisiana website does not provide the public with sufficient information to let people see the compliance history of a particular restaurant because only the last three inspections are posted.

“The website was a great idea, but it’s not a great idea if it’s not complete,” Purpera said.

Greenstein said no changes are contemplated because he is not sure of the value of adding older reports.

“It’s the most recent activity,” Greenstein said. “It was more important for us to make it easy to navigate and get to.”

The auditor used as an example the website listing of a restaurant that had 15 inspections with 345 violations over the past three years. But the Eat Safe Louisiana website shows 29 violations because only the last three inspections are posted, the audit report states.

“This limitation can prevent users from making informed decisions with respect to many retail food establishment operations,” the report states. The auditor listed in an addendum the top three restaurants with the most violations in each region between Fiscal Years 2009 and 2011. The restaurants named by the Legislative Auditor are included in the full report, which is available online at theadvocate.com.

The Great Wall Restaurant, on College Drive, had 345 violations, 76 of which were classified as critical violations that may directly relate to food contamination or illness, according to the Legislative auditor’s report. But the website shows 29 violations from three inspections in July.

Daniel Daigle, translator for Great Wall owner Li Song Dong who speaks Mandarin Chinese, disputed the statistics.

“Three hundred forty-five seems to be extremely high. I don’t think this is correct. I think it’s greatly exaggerated,” Daigle said Monday. “I would like to see the documents.”

Daigle said he has dealt with inspection reports because of the problems in language translation with restaurant operators. He said violations he is aware of have been quickly remedied as found. The buffet restaurant does a high volume of business and “sometimes the people in the back get a little overwhelmed with what’s going on,” Daigle said, explaining the reason for some violations.

The Office of Public Health estimates that some 3,140 inspections have not been posted to the website. Greenstein said that is being corrected.

The auditor’s investigation also concluded that OPH:

  • Did not always perform the required number of inspections of retail food establishments. Sanitarians did not perform the four inspections required annually on 5,849 — or 81 percent — of 7,252 high-risk retail food establishments. The category includes most full service restaurants.
  • Issued permits to some retail food establishments with uncorrected violations, including 13 percent of the 152 cited with critical violations on their pre-opening inspection 33 percent of those with at least one critical, uncorrected violation. “Allowing establishments to open with uncorrected violations may result in further noncompliance,” the auditor wrote.

The Legislative Auditor said the audit was conducted because the Louisiana state epidemiologist estimates that about 28,000 cases of foodborne illness are caused by retail food establishments annually.