A new report published by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor questions whether inspection of restaurants and other retail food establishments are doing enough to prevent foodborne illness in the Bayou State. With its $9.5 billion tourist industry mostly built around food and music, the safety of Louisiana restaurant food is a subject of interest far beyond its borders, especially with anyone who has a taste for crawfish, gumbo, and jambalaya. The report says that according to the Louisiana State Epidemiologist, accurately quantifying foodborne illness cases is difficult because not all cases are reported, and because many foodborne illnesses can be transmitted through a means other than food served at a restaurant. With that caveat , the state Epidemiologist estimates the state has 163,357 cases of foodborne illness annually with an estimated 28,000 illnesses originating at restaurants. During the last year, the state took about 2,930 reports of foodborne illness, with 498 or 17 percent coming from restaurants or other retail food establishments. The audit focuses specifically on the Office of Public Health (OPH) , the retail food safety unit of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH). Among its most significant findings are:
- OPH continues to give permits to food and beverage establishments that have not corrected previously discovered violations.
- When OPH finds violations, it rarely responds with any enforcement actions. The report says, “Of the nearly 450,000 violations identified from FY 2009 to FY 2011, The Office of Public Health issued only four compliance orders to retail food establishments and assessed penalties totaling approximately $1,300 for two of these compliance orders. However, OPH did not collect any of the penalties it assessed.”
- The state website for restaurant inspections is not maintained in a timely manner. At the time of the audit, 3,140 completed inspections had not been posted. Posting of scores or grades would be more effective in getting the word out to the public, the auditor suggested.
- Since one out three establishments have repeat critical violations, OPH enforcement is not able to deter non-compliance. Charging fees for re-inspections might help,” the auditor suggested.
- OPH did not re-inspection after critical violations 32 percent of the time or in a total of 4,200 establishments in a two year period.
- OPH’s management oversight of the program is limited by the fact sanitarians are not accountable to the retail program, permit fees are not scaled to the size of the establishment, and its internal database is unreliable and incomplete.
Louisiana’s retail food establishments are regulated by an $11 million a year program with 86 authorized positions. It currently permits about 16,000 retail establishments and conducted about 98,000 inspections over the two years that were the focus of the audit. During that period, about 20 percent or 88,290 critical violations were discovered among a total of 444,825. Critical violations are generally thought of as problems posing an immediate threat to human health. Examples in Louisiana are food stored at improper temperatures, poor employee hygiene, no water, chemical contamination and sewage backup. The audit findings were especially critical of OPH for granting permits to establishments where a critical violation was discovered but was not addressed before the opening. Further, Louisiana did not inspect 81 percent of the high-risk establishments in accordance with its own risk model. For example, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, OPH failed to inspect 2,079 of the 2,516 high-risk establishments. The auditor suggests OPH come up with a penalty or “some other concequence” for establishments with repeat critical violations. The Department of Health and Hospitals basically agrees with that recommendation, but says it will need legal advice on its options. The auditor also recommends a re-inspection fee system be developed. It suggested one revenue model that would raise another $718,500 for the program. Currently, restaurants in Louisiana pay an annual permit fee of just $100 each. To illustrate it point on how some restaurants run up critical violations without concern, the audit includes “Exhibit 4,” listing “Restaurants with Most Violations by Region.” Topping that list are three restaurants in Lafayette with total and critical violations for the two year period: Royal Panda (687 total including 133 critical violations or 19.4 percent) ; Charles Seafood (566 total including 102 critical violations or 18 percent0; and Crown Plaza Lafayette South (532 total including 98 or 18.4 percent).