More people could be exposed to foodborne illnesses in Louisiana if lawmakers approve a provision in the governor’s 2017 budget proposal which would lead to fewer inspections of the retail food industry, officials said Monday.
The Department of Health and Hospitals is planning for a possible reduction of up to 16 sanitarian staff members under Gov. John Bel Edward’s plan, said DHH Deputy Secretary Michelle Alletto.
Currently, 145 field sanitarian workers inspect restaurants, grocery stores and all other retail outlets that sell food. A loss of 16 inspectors would mark an 11 percent reduction in staff.
“The impact would be that more than 20,700 fewer retail food inspections will be conducted next year,” Alletto said. That’s 26 percent fewer inspections, according to DHH.
“A decrease in routine inspections like this is likely to result in an increase in unsafe food handling practices, which is likely to increase the number of citizens and visitors who are exposed to foodborne illnesses,” she said.
“Our inspectors (sanitarians) also conduct building and premises inspections, and sewerage and wastewater inspections,” DHH spokesman Bob Johannessen said. These are mandated activities that take up time in a sanitarian’s day, Johannessen said. “The result is a great burden of the reductions falls on restaurant inspections,” he said.
Lawmakers are considering ways to close a $600 million shortfall in the state budget year that begins July 1. The governor has proposed steep reductions to the health department and other spending areas, while also saying he plans a special summertime legislative session for lawmakers to consider tax changes that could stave off many of those cuts.
For now though, food inspections are proposed for cuts, along with other health services.
Thousands of restaurants and food retailers across Louisiana are inspected once or twice a year, and that number is sure to fall.
John Fury, who runs what he calls a “mom and pop” restaurant in Metairie, calls the inspections a good thing.
“Inspections are good for our business with food safety so important,” Fury said. “I don’t want to make any of my customers sick.”
Fury, his father, mother and brother opened Fury’s Restaurant, which is nearly 33 years old.
“Not only do they (inspectors) look for problems, but they have new ideas for storage and handling of food,” Fury said.
Those words were echoed by Randy LeBlanc, chief operations officer for LeBlanc’s Food Stores.
“We welcome the oversight,” LeBlanc said. “The inspections help keep our customers safe.”
LeBlanc’s family operates nine food stores.
“Any business that handles food needs to be accountable.” LeBlanc said.
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