An increasing workload and problems with turnover, management oversight and inefficient use of data have all contributed to an inspection backlog of thousands of licensed businesses in Oregon. That’s according to a recently released performance audit of the state’s food safety program, which is housed within the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA).

“We found that, as of October 2016, 2,841 firms were late for an inspection,” the report’s executive summary states, adding that ODA defines a backlogged firm as any operation three or more months overdue for a visit by state food safety inspectors.

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“Inspectors have not kept up with this workload in part because the number of licensed businesses has been steadily increasing for the last 10 years. There are now more than 12,000 licensees needing regular inspection by the Food Safety Program,” the auditors reported, noting that ODA has only 38 inspectors spread throughout the state.

“Inspectors are also spending significant amounts of time on duties that are not related to inspections, such as attending training courses in specialized license types or answering customer questions on the phone. Management has established goals for how much time inspectors should be spending on inspection-related tasks, but it is not clear these goals are being met.”

The audit report gave examples of problems evident from the backlog, including live and dead rodents and insects that food safety inspectors reportedly found in a Portland grocery store last year.

“They found hundreds of rodent droppings scattered throughout the store, from the beverage station in the front to the dry food storage area in the back. Seven dead mice were still locked in snap traps,” according to the audit report. Inspectors condemned and closed the store until these problems were fixed.

The performance audit made a dozen recommendations to ODA to tighten up food safety program operations. These include developing processes to track backlogs and inspector hours; designating a data analysis position; sharing inspection information with cities, counties and other agencies; and preparing for inspector retirements.

In a written response to the audit, ODA Acting Director Lisa Hanson said that food safety program staff members have started addressing the inspection backlog by setting goals and generating monthly reports to track progress.

She acknowledged that turnover has been a challenge — the report notes that 28 inspectors have either left ODA or retired since 2006 — and that the program is currently recruiting to fill a vacant field operations manager position.

ODA is responsible for inspecting dairies, grocers, food processors and other businesses in the state. The agency works in tandem with the Oregon Health Authority, whose county health departments are responsible for inspecting restaurants and other food service establishments.

For the 2015-17 biennium, the department’s operating budget is $105.8 million, with $10.9 million of that earmarked for the food safety program.

Some of ODA’s inspection work is done under a contract with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The audit suggested the agency lighten its regulatory load by reducing the number of these contract inspections.

“Currently, ODA conducts 500 contract inspections each year, one of the highest contract workloads in the country. These inspections take significantly longer than a routine ODA inspection,” according to the report.

Hanson responded that the current contract year expires July 31, 2017, and that ODA will work with FDA “to explore opportunities to further reduce the number of contract inspections going forward.”

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