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Allegheny's food safety program gets bad reviews

Nearly three out of four Allegheny County restaurants and food sellers are inspected only once every two or three years, according to county health department data.

"The situation is not good," said Glenda Christy, chief of the county's food safety program. She and other public health and consumer group officials warn that the lack of inspections could result in a major outbreak of food-borne illness.

Staff and budget cuts in the past 13 years have decimated a county inspection force that won a national award for its food safety program in 1993. A 2004 audit by the county comptroller's office and a task force formed in its wake recommended an increase in inspections. Four years later, Allegheny County doesn't inspect restaurants as often as in areas monitored by the state Department of Agriculture or local municipalities.

"You're playing Russian roulette," said Gerry Barron, former deputy director of the health department. "Sooner or later, it's going to backfire."

The result could be a "traumatic experience" where "many customers get sick or die because facilities had not been inspected," said Nancy Donley, president of the Maryland-based consumer advocacy group Safe Tables Our Priority.

"Every two years is really not acceptable," Jared Roach, 25, said Sunday. The first-year law-school student at the University of Pittsburgh, who lives in Shadyside, was enjoying a cup of coffee at a Starbucks in East Liberty.

County Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dixon did not respond to requests for an interview.

Allegheny is one of six Pennsylvania counties that do their own restaurant and food service inspections. The state and some municipal governments handle inspections in the other 61 counties.

The number of inspections in Allegheny County fell below 7,000 last year -- fewer than the county's estimated 7,400 food establishments. The food safety program had a $1.5 million budget last year and the equivalent of 13 full-time inspectors. Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole said the program had a $2.1 million budget in 1993, when it had 21 inspectors, who completed more than 12,700 inspections.

The state's 67 food inspectors are responsible for 23,000 food establishments, Agriculture Department spokesman Chris Ryder said. The department says its inspectors checked nearly every facility annually from 1996 to 2004. State law requires annual inspections for restaurants covered by the state, but not those covered by counties.

Some Western Pennsylvania municipalities that conduct food inspections do a better job than Allegheny County. Chris Doberneck, health inspector for Greensburg, Westmoreland County, said he checks all of the city's 80 or so food establishments at least once a year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that food inspectors handle no more than 320 inspections each year. Allegheny County inspectors averaged almost 540 last year.

Inspectors examine such things as whether food is cooked or cooled to required temperatures, employees' personal hygiene and a kitchen's cleanliness.

The county has issued one "consumer alert" so far this year for a restaurant that failed to fix a critical health violation. Last year, it issued consumer alerts for eight restaurants. That is down from 15 to 20 alerts a year the department issued around 2000. Cole blamed the drop on fewer inspections and fewer inspectors.

"We wanted to get more inspectors out there," said Kevin Joyce, owner of The Carlton, Downtown, chairman of the state restaurant association and a member of the task force formed after the 2003 audit of the county Health Department.

Christy said she hopes part of a $500,000 increase to the county Health Department's budget will be put toward hiring three more inspectors.

Some public health officials understand why the issue hasn't caused more alarm.

"People have this idea if they don't get sick immediately after eating, then whatever illness they're suffering from, it's not from food," Christy said.

While diarrhea and other symptoms of minor food poisoning can occur within hours or days, symptoms of hepatitis A -- an inflammation of the liver that can kill -- sometimes take 50 days to appear, health officials said. Hepatitis A can be spread by practices food inspectors could catch. However, the hepatitis A outbreak of 2003 blamed for killing four Chi Chi's Mexican Restaurant customers and sickening almost 700 others came from food that was contaminated before it reached the kitchen, health officials said. Health inspectors do not test food.

"People are finally realizing that the food industry is one of the most intrusive, outside the medical profession, to the human body," said Frank Sacco, a past president of the state restaurant association and former owner of Piccolo Piccolo Ristorante, Downtown. "The difference is, when a doctor gives you a pill, it's been tested. A restaurant is putting food into your body, but there's no test except maintaining proper methods and standards."

Cynthia Burns, 42, of Moon, said she doesn't go out to eat as much anymore because she fears getting sick.

"I worry about the cleanliness of restaurants and people not washing their hands," she said yesterday while sitting in the dining area of the Whole Foods Market in East Liberty. "I used to eat out three or four times a month. Now, it's about once a month."

Checking the kitchens

Allegheny County food safety officials inspect restaurants and other food-service facilities based on a priority list developed after a 2003 audit showing a shortage of inspectors. The schedule:

Twice a year: Restaurants or other food servers that have had multiple critical violations.

Once a year: Facilities that cook, cool, reheat and keep non-packaged food heated, including some types of fast-food restaurants, supermarkets and warehouse clubs

Once every two years: Facilities that primarily cook, then serve non-packaged food, including bakeries, coffee shops and some types of fast-food restaurants.

Once every three years: Facilities that serve only pre-packaged foods, such as convenience stores and kitchen supply stores

The dirty nine

Allegheny County Health Department's nine most critical food safety violations:

* Failure to cook food to high enough temperature

* Failure to refrigerate food at a low enough temperature

* Failure to cool cooked food properly

* Failure to reheat food long enough or to the proper temperature

* Failure to keep cooked food at a high enough temperature

* Failure to protect foods from cross-contamination -- for example, cutting vegetables on the same surface used for cutting meat.

* Employees working in unhealthy or unsafe conditions

* Failure to keep kitchen equipment clean

* Poor employee hygiene during food preparation, including failure to wash hands.

Source: Allegheny Department of Health

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