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Work load rise awaits local food inspectors

Checking aspirin bottles and jars of baby food for expiration dates will be among a wide range of additional duties placed on city and county health departments in Ohio under sweeping changes scheduled to take effect next year.

The new laws will streamline the inspection process by turning over some duties now handled by the state agriculture department to local health officials. As a result, local health departments will be the sole inspectors and licensors of all food establishments, including grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, and food vendors.

The measures are expected to force city and county health departments to hire more inspectors, result in higher license fees for some businesses, and - it is hoped - result in a safer food supply for consumers.

It also will mean a lot more paper work for health departments.

To demonstrate that point, Mike Oricko holds a thin ream of papers up before him.

“This is our current food code,” said Mr. Oricko, environmental health director for the Toledo-Lucas County health department.

He sets that aside and hefts a large bound booklet about two inches thick. He drops it on his desk with a loud plunk. It's the new set of guidelines that all counties must adopt.

“This is why I have a look of panic in my eyes,” he said.

By Feb. 1, all counties must have adopted the new state rules. Officials like Mr. Oricko are struggling to prepare their departments, and the sites they inspect, for the changes.

While he's nervous about sorting through the new rules, Mr. Oricko said consumers will benefit, because “we'll be in places more, looking at more.” In the long run, he said, that will result in a safer food supply for the general public.

The rules were passed last year by the state legislature, which wanted to streamline the food-inspection process.

The basic problem, as state regulators and many in the food industry saw it, was that some places could end up having to deal with multiple inspectors with different sets of rules.

For example, a large grocery store that both sells packaged food and has a deli and bakery now gets inspected by the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the local health department. It must comply with both state and local health regulations.

Under the changes, local health departments will conduct all inspections following state laws.

One new twist for local health departments is that, depending on floor space, they now could be inspecting places like convenience stores that sell over-the-counter drugs and things like baby food. Inspectors already inspect food prepared in convenience stores, but the new rules require inspectors to make sure expiration dates on all products, including medication, aren't expired.

In addition, the new rules are far more complex than the current regulations.

There will be rules governing 23 categories of businesses selling food, compared with the current 13. The state looks at various risk factors to determine how to categorize each business. Higher-risk categories include such places as canneries, because of concerns about bacteria being introduced in the canning process. Microbreweries are in a higher-risk category as well, because they do bottling.

Mr. Oricko said he estimates that the annual license fee for businesses his department inspects will increase $50 under the new code. The increase will be necessary to cover the additional staff needed to administer the new code.

Higher-risk businesses will have to be inspected more frequently under the new laws, he said, so their yearly license fees could rise from $200-$400 now to almost $1,000.

Letters outlining the changes were sent last week to all Lucas County sites that would be affected by the new rules. Reaction from some business owners was swift.

“We're getting a fair number of phone calls,” Mr. Oricko said.

Although Jim Favorite, director of operations for Arrowhead Brewing Company and Maumee Bay Brewing Company, said that while he's not thrilled about his fees going up, he can live with the new rules as long as they're fair and enforced consistently.

“If you're doing your job, it's really not an issue,” he said.

Pat Nowak, a spokeswoman for Food Town grocery stores and The Pharm discount drug stores, agreed.

“I don't think it's going to require much more of an effort on our part,” she said. “We're so regulated anyway.”

The many changes in the inspection process mean the Toledo-Lucas County health department, which already inspects more than 3,000 sites a year, will have to add two inspectors to its 13-member inspection team to handle the additional responsibilities. Officials estimate that the new rules will boost the number of sites visited by 10 per cent.

The new rules, once all the confusion about how to interpret changes is sorted out, will benefit the consumer by making food preparation and handling safer, Mr. Oricko said.

For example, under the new rules, refrigerated food will have to be stored at 41 degrees instead of the current 45 degrees.

While that could result in some businesses having to buy new refrigeration systems, businesses will have seven years to bring existing systems into compliance with the law.

Mr. Oricko said Lucas County has a head start on many other local health departments because it already has rules that cover many of the sites added under the new rules. Many local health departments have never inspected the places mandated by the new code.

“A lot of counties are starting from scratch,” he said.

Mary Dennis, Wood County's environmental administrator, said her county will have to inspect about 100 more sites on top of its current 525, meaning the county probably will have to add some staff.

Kim Cupp, director of environmental health for Fulton County, said the changes will add about 100 sites to inspections there, requiring additional staff as well.

Local health officials who were questioned said they're still waiting for more details from state officials on the new rules. Mr. Oricko said a draft of the rules has been sent to counties, but that he and colleagues in other counties still have lots of questions.

One unanswered question that Ms. Cupp has is how to apply the new rules to home bakeries that produce wedding cakes, pies, and other products. About 20 such places exist in Fulton County, she said.

John Wanchick, chief of the bureau of environmental health services for the Ohio Health Department, said the basic framework for the rules is in place.

The state is adopting food-inspection guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration, he said, and tailoring those for use in Ohio.

Mr. Oricko and some members of the Toledo-Lucas County health board have called the new state rules an unfunded mandate.

Mr. Wanchick disagreed, noting that state law allows health departments to charge enough extra to cover their costs.

In addition, he said that some of the cost increase will occur because many counties haven't raised their fees in many years and will use the fee structure to bring their charges up to date.

Local health departments will have to project costs well in advance in order to make the fee system of cost recovery work, Mr. Oricko countered.

“You never really recover” all costs, because it's hard to predict costs into the future, he said.

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