Agency to step up eatery inspections

The state agency in charge of overseeing food safety in restaurants pledged Thursday to get its operations up to national standards by the end of 2013.

One of the biggest takeaways from an Office of Public Health news conference Thursday was a commitment to address a significant inspection backlog by September.

The agency also promised that Louisiana restaurants which handle raw meat or other easily contaminated foods will be subject to at least four surprise inspections per year.

OPH Assistant Secretary J.T. Lane said many of the changes have been in the works for a while. However, Thursday’s announcement comes just three weeks after a legislative audit report criticized the agency for not cracking down on unsanitary restaurants.

The report found that OPH issued only four citations to retail food establishments out of the nearly 450,000 food safety violations the agency uncovered between 2009 and 2011. Retail food establishments include restaurants, delicatessens, cafeterias and other businesses that sell ready-to-eat food.

About one-third of the establishments knocked for unsanitary conditions were repeat offenders but were not penalized in any significant way, the report stated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 48 million people, or one in six Americans suffer food-borne illnesses each year. Lane said only 200,000 people suffer similarly in Louisiana every year.

“Overall we’re doing a good job,” Lane said. “There is no issue with the quality of our inspectors.”

Lane said OPH, which is part of the state Department of Health and Hospitals, is in the process of standardizing the way restaurant violations are reported around the state to cut down on instances where repeat offenses go unaddressed.

“People should feel a lot safer,” he said.

The new system will be data driven and will allow the agency to be more accountable, he added.

“We’ll be able to see within one system who is messing up and who is not,” Lane said.