The latest round of budget cuts in Alaska could leave residents vulnerable to dirty restaurant kitchens, foodborne illnesses and scummy pools.
As lawmakers grapple with an estimated $4 billion budget deficit, the state agency tasked with ensuring the safety of Alaskans’ food supply says a proposed $268,000 cut could lead to fewer inspections, less oversight and the elimination of some programs.
Fewer inspections would increase the possibility of an outbreak of foodborne illness.
“We’re not going to be out in forces like we had been with restaurant inspections,” said Jason Wiard, an environmental health officer who oversees southeast Alaska.
Last year, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s food safety and sanitation program received a $624,000 funding cut.
The division lost eight positions – including four inspectors – increasing the workload on the 13 remaining inspectors. As of January, two inspectors are each responsible for nearly 550 facilities in Anchorage per year. Fairbanks isn’t far behind, with 500 facilities for each for its three inspectors, according to food safety and sanitation data. One inspector in Juneau handles 600 facilities.
The remaining inspectors visit facilities and businesses needing oversight, such as convenience stores, restaurants, seafood markets and processors, pools and spas and tattoo parlors.
Inspectors have shifted their focus to high-risk businesses and everything else could see delays, Wiard said. It could take longer for new businesses to get plans reviewed and permitted by the state, he said.
Several functions have already fallen by the wayside. State inspectors have stopped reviewing building plans and responding to complaints about barbers and beauty shops. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, has its own inspection program and performs those services. But shops opening outside its city limits fall into a regulatory limbo.
“Right now, we can’t enforce DEC regulations and the work around is basically that a shop owner reads and verifies on their application that they have read DEC’s requirements and agree to comply,” said Janey Hovenden, director of the state’s Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing
Outside of Anchorage, other businesses like hotels and motels, laundromats and public showers lack oversight, said Kimberly Stryker, Food Safety and Sanitation director.
“We essentially stopped doing sanitation and safety inspections in schools,” she said.
The decrease in inspections and the possibility of another budget cuts comes as the food safety program readies to take responsibility for oversight of marijuana edibles and concentrate producers, Stryker said.
Stryker wrote in an email that the state has about 4,800 permitted retail and food service facilities. If the division gets a funding cut, inspectors could make it to fewer than 1,000 each year, she wrote.
“Some places we might never see or it might be years between visits. The public is really going to need to be our eyes and ears,” she said.
Though the number of inspections has decreased, complaints about foodborne illnesses have stayed at about the same level and violations of food safety protocols are widespread.
In 2016, state inspection records found widespread violations, including employees who didn’t wash their hands or touched food with bare hands, potential cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods, chemicals stored near food, and food that hasn’t been heated or cooled properly.
People who work with food safety and sanitation say the risk of tainted food is likely to increase.
“I have said this actually for many years that it’s going to take a good-sized foodborne illness outbreak and some people dying before the Legislature will get off its duff and give food safety the money they need,” said former state food safety inspector John Walker, who now runs a food safety consulting business on the Kenai Peninsula.
He said the state’s inspection program has been strained for years. Five years ago, he said state inspectors peaked at getting to about 47 percent of high-risk facilities each year.
Now, inspectors make it out to high-risk food facilities about once every 1 1/2 years, according to data Stryker provided.
“We didn’t have enough money and people to begin with,” Walker said.
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