A hiring freeze of restaurant inspectors has prevented the Oklahoma State Health Department from inspecting some food establishments as often as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends.
Last year, an estimated 20 percent of food establishments in Oklahoma were not inspected as regularly as FDA guidelines suggest, according to a Tulsa World analysis of Health Department data.
In 2005, less than 12 percent of Oklahoma’s restaurants did not meet the federally recommended frequency, data show.
Tressa Madden, director of the Health Department’s consumer protection division, said that until recently budget concerns had left the division short-staffed.
The department, however, hired four inspectors in the last six months, Madden said.
“The money wasn’t there to fill those positions,” she said. “Now we’re back.”
The state employs 64 inspectors who inspect restaurants, as well as day care centers, pools and barbershops.
FDA guidelines call for health officials to inspect restaurants up to four times a year, depending on how the restaurant prepares and serves its food.
According to FDA guidelines, high-risk food establishments — those that prepare raw food — should be inspected more often by health departments because of the higher risk of contamination and food-borne illnesses.
Under state rules, all food establishments must be inspected at least once a year.
“If the staffing is there, we’re capable of meeting the (FDA) risk-based inspections,” Madden said.
There are some 20,000 food establishments in Oklahoma. They include Walmart cafes, school cafeterias, buffets and fast-food restaurants.
The Tulsa City-County Health Department has largely avoided staffing problems, said Elizabeth Nutt, director of the health department’s Consumer Protection Environmental Health Services Division.
After two recent hires, the department now employs 17 inspectors, some of whom also teach food safety classes or perform other inspections.
Unlike the rest of the state, Tulsa and Oklahoma counties review their own food establishments and file inspection reports with the state Health Department.
Additionally, Tulsa County’s contract with the state requires that it meet the FDA’s risk-based inspection guidelines, Nutt said.
Tulsa has routinely ranked among the counties with the lowest percentage of restaurants that fail to meet the FDA frequency recommendations, data show.
In 2005, 2.15 percent of Tulsa County’s food establishments were not inspected to federal guidelines. That figure increased to about 8 percent last year.
But Nutt said those figures can be misleading.
If a high-risk establishment opens in mid-year, the department would need to inspect it just two times before the year ends, rather than four times, for example.
If the county doesn’t meet the federal recommendation, Nutt said the state could withhold some of its funding.
“It’s never happened yet,” Nutt said. “Our luxury is we are more compact. We don’t have to drive 50 miles to inspect a place one time. When you’re way out in the country, that’s hard to do.”
The inspection process — which checks things including food’s temperature and storage as well as the cleanliness of countertops, floors and utensils — should be used as a learning experience, officials said.
Jim Hopper, president of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, said that if violations are found, restaurant operators should learn how to correct them.
It’s simple, he said. Passing inspections, avoiding violations and preventing the possibility of closure just makes economic sense.
“A good operator wants to look at the Health Department as their partner in food safety and training,” Hopper said. “We all have the same ultimate goal, and that is to keep people healthy.”