Budget woes are part of so-called normal life right now, especially for individuals and small businesses. Public entities such as school districts are also having trouble making ends meet. In addition to keeping the lights on, finding enough employees to fill open positions is another challenge related to budget constraints, with wages figuring in the equation with increasing frequency. 

Public health departments are no exception and restricted budgets mean less money for their services, including crucial food safety efforts.

Allegheny County, PA

Consider the situation in Allegheny County, PA. With a population of 1.25 million as of the 2020 Census, the county is second only to Philadelphia County in terms of residents. The county seat of Allegheny County is the metropolis of Pittsburgh. 

The county’s food safety program monitors and regulates more than 8,500 permanent food businesses with inspections of each business required at least once per year. Some facilities, which distribute only pre-packaged food, can be inspected once every two years. The food safety employees also conduct additional inspections in response to consumer complaints and to follow up after violations are found. They also investigate a fluctuating number of reports of operations that are not working under proper permits.

The food safety program in Allegheny County is representative of most county programs across the county. Such programs are generally housed within public health departments and handle inspections and other regulatory issues for localities within the county. Most county health departments rely on their food safety programs to cover consumer education, emergency preparedness, certification of food handlers, and education programs for businesses.

That’s a lot of public safety responsibility.

That requires a lot of boots on the ground.

Right now there are enough empty boots out there to open a chain of shoe stores. Much of the problem can be found if you follow the money, or rather the lack thereof.

“Overall there are several challenges facing all food safety programs,” said Steven Mandernach, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO).

Steven Mandernach

The organization Mandernach heads include members from the city, county, and state health departments across the country as well as people from federal entities such as the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and the Food and Drug Administration. Funding for food safety programs at all levels has never been up to par with responsibilities laid out in government policies at all levels. The number of food operations and other food safety issues to address has outpaced budget allocations.

“Overall, the attractiveness of government employment is not the same as it once was, pensions and health insurance have been diminished and now pay is quite low compared to industry,” Mandernach said.

“Some (food safety) programs are experiencing a 20 percent year-over-year turnover.  Programs report not getting qualified candidates and frequent reposting of the positions multiple times to fill.”

In Allegheny County, the food safety program is operating at half capacity with only 14 of its 30 inspector positions currently filled, according to data published by the county.

When you consider the amount of responsibility and stress on public food safety inspectors at all levels of government it’s easy to understand why there is a hiring crisis. Mandernach said the numbers from Allegheny County are not unusual. He said national numbers show a typical county public health inspector is assigned to review operations of between 200 and 600 establishments per year.

With only 260 weekdays per year — including holidays — it’s easy to do the math. Inspectors can’t possibly meet the expectations of their job descriptions effectively.

“It takes close to two years to train a candidate to be effective and many new hires will stay 5 years or less,” Mandernach said.

The problem could be solved with an infusion of funds for public health inspectors, but a general mood among much of the public, and therefore elected officials, is blocking the path.

“Funding to maintain positions is always challenging,” Mandernach said. “The legislative will at the state and local level for any type of regulation is a bit challenging currently with anti-regulation tendency.”

The current situation is flat-out unacceptable.

It is time to allocate enough money for enough food safety staff at all levels of government — but especially at state, county, and city levels — to make sure our food is safe to eat. 

If we had enough boots on the ground at state and local levels we would catch food safety problems sooner and reduce the need for federal intervention. More people inspecting more food operations at the state and local levels is a state and local control issue.

The public needs to lobby state and local lawmakers to provide adequate funding for food safety programs. If the elected officials won’t step up, send them stepping on their way next time they ask for your vote. 

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