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Food safety inspections lag

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By Allison M. Heinrichs
Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006
 

If you buy food in Allegheny County, chances are the facility you're getting it from hasn't been inspected for food safety in more than a year.

Of Pennsylvania's 10 city and county health departments, Allegheny County ranks last in the frequency of food-safety inspections, said Glenda Christy, the county's chief of food safety, at the county Board of Health meeting Wednesday.

"With the number of staff we have, 67 percent (of the county's food establishments) are not receiving annual inspections," Christy said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that any establishment selling food -- including stores and restaurants -- be inspected at least once a year. Four inspections each year should be done at places that handle raw ingredients.

"With all the high-profile (food-borne disease) outbreaks we've had in this area ... I just think we are really looking for trouble," said Dr. Lee Harrison, a member of the health board.

A 2003 hepatitis outbreak sickened 660 people and killed four who ate green onions at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in Beaver County. A 2004 salmonella outbreak sickened at least 34 people who ate tomatoes from various Sheetz convenience stores in Western Pennsylvania.

There are 14 food inspectors for the county's 7,437 food establishments.

"At the present staffing level, we are not providing adequate protection to the citizens of Allegheny County," Christy said.

To inspect every facility at least once a year, the health department would need at least an additional six inspectors, she said.

"We do not have the money to add staff," said Dr. Bruce Dixon, director of the health department.

Rather than hiring new inspectors, the health department is working on a plan to designate three supervisors as inspectors. Although a staff of 17 inspectors wouldn't allow the department to inspect every facility once a year, it would allow them to get to the places that sell more than just pre-packaged food, Dixon said.

"Every area is hurting. Every program is understaffed for what we need to do," Dixon said. "Our human-health organizations are operating on a shoestring."

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