Inspection fees for restaurants and food pods as well as pools, hotels and child care facilities will increase Jan. 1, 2018. The fees support the regular health inspections, operator education and support to keep those operators licensed under state rules.
Even with the increase, the rates remain lower than many fees assessed in neighboring and comparable counties, Jae Douglas, director of Multnomah County Environmental Health, told commissioners during the regular board meeting on Oct. 26.
The county increased fees in 2016 and 2017 after a months-long examination of inspection rates and duration showed that Health Department was significantly understaffed to keep pace with the rapidly-growing food industry in Multnomah County.
During a 2015 presentation to the Board, Douglas said at that time, each health inspector carried a caseload of more than 300 businesses, a heavier lift than inspectors in Washington, Lane, Benton or Deschutes counties. Staff worked long hours to inspect 90 percent of food service facilities. But while the state recommended inspectors reinspect 40 percent of those businesses, Multnomah County’s team only had enough time and people to reinspect 20 percent of the time.
Douglas needed to hire six additional inspectors and one additional support staff to improve reinspection rates and allow staff to spend more time on each inspection, the county’s Food Service Advisory Committee recommended in 2015.
“It was a very thorough examination,” Douglas said this week. “One thing that was really clear was that foodservice operators felt they needed more time, more engagement, more time for relationship-building. The [six additional staff] are now in place and we are seeing significant positive effects on the way people are experiencing our inspectors on the ground.”
The 2018 increase is incremental at 4 percent, compared to 10 percent and 14 percent in the previous two years. This increase is required in order to keep pace with the county’s growing and increasingly complex food service industry, travel times and other associated costs and annual cost of living increases.
“It’s always a lift to vote on a fee increase, but it’s quite mild compared the last two years,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “Thank you for the thorough vetting and the comparing and contrast. It’s really helpful to see where we are in comparison.”
Inspections are completed by 25 environmental health specialists. Last year they made 14,574 inspections of restaurants, food carts, special events and commissary kitchens, in addition to pools, spas, hotels and childcare providers.
They start work as early as 5 a.m., for special events such as community pancake breakfasts, and as late as 9 p.m. when some bars open for business, said Environmental Health Supervisor Jeff Martin.
The work is often curious, sometimes concerning, and always rewarding, he said. Take the past week, for example, when inspectors spotted a rarely seen item on a restaurant menu and had to act quickly to learn how such food could safely prepared and ensure the preparation met those standards.
“Portland is a foodie town,” Martin said. “The chefs who work here range from short-order cooks to established names to the newest reality TV stars.”
That can make inspections interesting, he said, when his inspectors see uncommon ingredients such as duck liver, crickets, and calf brain.
“That’s something you don’t usually see. We then have to pull the regulations about how to serve calf brain to humans...We know how to cook chicken. We know how to handle seafood. But you don’t do calf brain on a regular basis.”
Last week, during the heavy rains, inspectors walked into a Portland restaurant and saw water leaking through the kitchen ceiling and onto food preparation tables, he said. Inspectors immediately recognized the potential for a serious public health threat and required the operator to stop serving food until the repairs were completed. The case reminded Martin of a 2006 case in which a storm-damaged roof at a peanut butter manufacturing plant led to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 700 people across 44 states.“I know fee increases are never fun,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said Thursday. “But an import role for government is to make sure safety procedures are actually being followed.”