To get back into compliance with its own state code, and without raising fees, Iowa is going with a risk-based restaurant inspection system beginning April 1.  The state can no longer conduct the two annual inspections its code requires if all restaurants are treated the same.

“Right now we are not meeting the (state) code,” says David Werning, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals (DIA).

Changing to risk-based inspections means every food establishment in the state will be classified as a low, medium or high risk. The classification will determine the frequency of inspection.

A low risk establishment–for example, a gas station convenience store that sells only packaged foods–would be inspected only once every two years. Other establishments would be inspected either once or twice a year, depending on whether their risk level is determined to be medium or high.

State auditors last year wrote up Iowa’s DIA for not meeting the inspection requirements of the state code. The department is now under new management. New Gov. Terry Branstad has put Rod Roberts, a 10-year veteran of the Iowa House, in charge and the Senate gave his appointment unanimous approval.

Asked if Roberts’ decision to put the state on a risk-based restaurant inspection system will put Iowa back into compliance with its code, Werning said: “We believe it will.”

But some wonder for how long.

“It is my fear that these requirements will slowly change to once in a 24-month period or once in a 12-month period,” says Eric Bradley, president of the Iowa Environmental Health Association. 

 “This is what is going on in many of the counties that use the current risk-based schedule.  This is too much time between inspections to ensure food safety.”

Iowa’s restaurant inspections program is a bit of a hybrid. To cover Iowa’s 99 counties, the state contracts with 23 counties and five cities to run the program in 62 counties, while DIA covers 37 counties on its own.

The problem is it is not easy to raise fees in Iowa.  The state raised restaurant inspection fees by 50 percent in 1998, and later by another 35 percent, but Branstad took fee increases off the table when he became governor in January.

And the existing fees are not enough. Sioux City is responsible for restaurant inspection in 10 surrounding counties of eastern Iowa. Fees produce $343,690, while inspections cost $504,000. Sioux City taxpayers pick up the difference, over $160,000.

Local governments are paying up to 45 percent of the costs of food inspections in some counties.

Another quirk in the system is that fees for the counties that fall under DIA’s direct inspection go first to the Iowa general fund, making it possible for the Assembly to divert those funds to other uses.  

Lawmakers diverted $400,000 for other uses last year—a decision that put DIA so far behind code requirements for inspections that it was only able to inspect a food establishment once every 18 months.

The Iowa Environmental Health Association has offered a variety of policy recommendations to solve the funding problem, including:

  • Authorize an increase in food licensing fees to fully fund state and local food safety inspection activities as required by the 2005 Iowa Code, and minimize the need to use local tax dollars to provide inspections services. These fees should fully fund the food protection program, including administration, inspections and educational activities.

  • Adopt fees for plan reviews of new food establishments, re-inspections, and school food programs and reoccurring temporary events. These fees should be established at levels adequate to compensate for the cost of providing these services.

  • Support a revised food licensing fee schedule (rounded up to a whole number) that annually increases (based on the Consumer Price Index) in order to keep pace with the rising costs of inspections. Create the system so both food establishment fees and food service establishment fees are the same. This would reduce consumer confusion.

  • Alternatively, approve an appropriation to local health departments to fully fund this important public health function. This appropriation should cover the current shortfalls in administration; plan review, inspections, re-inspections and educational activities of the food protection program.