Checking on Grocery Store Food Safety Not Easy in Oregon

By TRACY LOEW, Statesman Journal | December 11, 2014

In Cincinnati, Chicago or Washington, D.C., grocery store customers can go online to check out their favorite stores’ latest inspection report.

At least eight states and many counties and cities across the country post full copies of retail food inspections online. Many other states and municipalities offer online access to, at a minimum, an establishment’s last inspection date and score.

But in Oregon, customers are left in the dark.

Oregon adopted the FDA Food Code, which recommends inspection reports be public documents. But there is no requirement that they be publicly posted or made easily available.

Earlier this year, the Oregon Department of Agriculture created a new database to track food inspections and results. But the system was designed for internal use only, said Mark Stuller, an ODA information systems specialist.

Downloading the data, stored in a program called Filemaker Pro, would take a $30-an-hour analyst at least four hours, Stuller said, as would downloading any updates.

Oregon officials haven’t discussed putting the database online or otherwise making it accessible to consumers, said Frank Barcellos, an ODA food safety program manager.

To get a paper copy of an inspection report, customers must file a formal request under Oregon’s public records law and pay a minimum $15 search fee plus copying costs.

The system is in stark contrast to restaurant inspections, which are available online in Marion and the state’s other most-populous counties.

The Statesman Journal paid $109.50 for copies of inspection reports for the largest stores in Salem and Keizer.

So how did they fare?

The answer is complicated.

Stores get separate inspections of their retail sections, bakeries and meat operations.

Under new federal recommendations, violations are categorized as priority – or having a direct connection to food-borne illness; priority foundation – equipment or procedures fail to control food-borne illness risk; or core – regarding general good practices.

Violations previously were categorized as CDC risk factor; critical; or non-critical.

Unlike some states, Oregon doesn’t assign a score or grade to inspections, like those used for restaurants.

“We just go in there and look at things and then we deal with the issues the inspector comes up with,” Barcellos said.

If the restaurant scoring system were imposed on grocery stores, eight, or more than a quarter, of our local stores would have received failing grades. Follow-up inspections were scheduled for three of those, and have been completed for two.

None of Salem and Keizer’s 606 restaurants failed their last inspection.

State officials say they don’t analyze their inspection database to determine which violations grocery stores struggle with most frequently, or which stores or chains have the most problems.

“We don’t follow them that way,” Barcellos said. “We’re so involved in so many different aspects. Sometimes (inspections) are reviewed by supervisors, sometimes they’re not.”

In Salem and Keizer, the overwhelming majority of violations had to do with foods being offered for sale past their expiration date:

“In the sandwich island area, chopped chicken and country gravy were lacking dates,” an inspector found at the Winco on Commercial Street SE. “Breaded chopped chicken and alfredo sauce were not date marked correctly. Items moved from the deli to the sandwich prep area are dated with the date moved. Staff unable to determine when it needs to be discarded.”

At the Keizer Albertson’s, “Sliced meats are given from 8 to 22 days . no documentation is available to show safety of sliced meats past a total of 7 days. Sliced cheeses are given 60 days once open and sliced. No documentation is available onsite to show the safety of the cheeses past seven days.”

That was followed closely by food being held at unsafe temperatures (cold food must be held below 41 degrees Fahrenheit; hot food above 135 degrees):”Display case holding grilled chicken, fried chicken, kids snack packs, assorted cheeses, hummus, assorted salads and bratwurst was cold holding items at internal temperatures up to 52 degrees,” an inspector found at the Keizer Albertson’s. “The produce department cold holding unit was holding stuffed mushrooms, cut melons and bean dips at internal temperatures up to 53 degrees. The juice and almond milk display case was holding keep-refrigerated product at internal temperatures of up to 52 degrees.”

At Fred Meyer on Commercial Street SE, “Breading used for fried chicken is stored at room temperature from approximately 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.,” an inspector wrote. “The breading contains moist clumps and dried bits in it that were not removed after the last batch of chicken was breaded.”

Area grocery stores also struggled with cleaning, maintaining their physical facilities, and protecting food from contamination

“Bakery pans are encrusted with old food debris and are stacked upon each other without cleaning to be reused over and over,” an inspector found at the Safeway on Commercial Street SE. “Donut pans are sitting in old grease and have a thick layer of grease on the bottom half of the stack.”

“Bread slicer in bakery is stored in contact with the towel dispenser so when you wash your hands, then reach for the towel dispenser you drip onto the area where the bread sits prior to slicing,” inspectors found at the Fred Meyer on Market Street NE.

Oregon has the authority to impose civil penalties on stores that routinely food safety rules, but the state never has done so, Barcellos said.

“We try not to go that far. We try to work with everyone at the front end of this,” he said. “Most of them are willing to work with us. They want to provide a good wholesome product for the public out there.”

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