Merced County’s environmental health department was investigated by the civil grand jury for the second year in a row after falling behind on its annual food inspections, according to the 2013-14 report released last month.
The department conducts inspections on more than 1,100 food-related operations in Merced County, including restaurants, bars, meat markets, gas stations and school cafeterias.
The report found 12 percent of food inspections were overdue as of March. Jurors determined food inspections were behind by 40 percent the prior year, according to the report.
A follow-up report in May showed inspections of 88 facilities remained past due from 2012 and 2013.
Environmental health officials on Tuesday said the civil grand jury report was “inaccurate” because it was written before the deadline for inspectors to complete their checks. They said inspections weren’t due until June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“It’s just unfortunate that they didn’t get to ask us at the end of June if we got to finish all the facilities, because we did,” said Ron Rowe, director for the Merced County Division of Environmental Health.
Rowe said his department is on track with current year inspections for food facilities.
The grand jury report highlighted one Merced restaurant that was rated “highly unsatisfactory” and required a reinspection after 30 days. A follow-up visit never happened, the report said.
“In addition to the issue of overdue inspections, the committee found a lack of follow-up on those businesses that were rated highly unsatisfactory,” the report stated. “For example, one business had 52.5 points in violations noted and no follow-up inspections have been conducted to determine if these violations have been corrected to date.”
Rowe said the report was incorrect in assuming a reinspection hadn’t occurred. The original inspection happened on March 3 and a follow-up visit took place on April 2, he said.
The original inspection found serious violations such as failure to keep utensils, equipment, and facilities clean and failure to protect ice “intended for human consumption” from contamination.
Food facilities receive seven points for major violations and one to two points for minor ones. Above 14 points is considered “unsatisfactory” and requires a reinspection after 30 days.
Nine Merced County food establishments were rated unsatisfactory, according to the most recent records on the department’s website.
Food inspections are generally designed to monitor food temperatures, sanitation and cleanliness of establishments to prevent illness and injury.
“One of the things we look at is employee hygiene – whether they are washing their hands properly and if they appear to have contagious illnesses that could contaminate food,” said Vicki Jones, supervising environmental health specialist, who oversees the food inspectors. “Our ultimate goal is to protect public health.”
Environmental health officials said the department has faced a host of challenges in the past few years – aging computer equipment, outdated software programs and a 20 percent reduction in staff since 2009.
Inspectors struggled to keep up with changing laws and increasing caseloads as new food establishments opened in Merced County, Jones said.
The department now employs five full-time food inspectors to cover the entire county.
“When I was hired, I don’t think we were completely caught up anyway, and then we lost two staff to retirement and that left a pretty big hole to try to fill,” said Jones, who’s worked for the county 31/2 years. “We took that time to reorganize, redistribute the workload and hire new staff.”
The department earlier this year purchased new equipment for food inspectors to use in the field, including computer tablets and printers. Mapping technology was also introduced, allowing Jones to assign inspections by geographical zones to evenly distribute the workload and cut down on travel time.
Though they’ve made some major strides, environmental health officials said they’re always looking for ways to improve and the civil grand jury report is a reminder of that.
“It’s always hard to hear, but you can make something positive out of it,” Jones said. “Anytime there’s feedback, I look at it as constructive and will work to make improvements based on the feedback.”
The department has until the end of July to issue a formal response to the report.
To view restaurant ratings, visit the county website at www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=597 and click on “food inspections.”
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.