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State lags on grocery inspections

SALEM — On Aug. 18, state health inspectors visited Salem's Broadway Fred Meyer grocery for the first time in three years.

They recorded 24 violations, 14 of which posed serious health threats, including raw chicken juice splashing prep bowls, bread pans and packaged food; deli slicers that were being sprayed with sanitizer but not washed; and cheese cases that were too warm.

On Aug. 19, inspectors visited the Hayesville Roth's Fresh Markets for the first time in 27 months.

They documented 24 violations, 14 of them serious, including meat and cheese being sold past pull dates; improperly cooled food such as taco meat; and "excessive" flies in the produce area.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Food Code, which Oregon has incorporated into state law, recommends grocery stores be inspected at least every six months, just like restaurants, cafeterias and food carts.

State officials say that, because of tight budgets, they aim for once per year instead. But they admit they don't always meet that goal.

"It's a voluntary part of the code," said Frank Barcellos, an Oregon Department of Agriculture food safety program manager. "All states approach it pretty much the way we do. They determine what their capabilities are and how they can meet them."

On Aug. 6, when the Statesman Journal requested inspection reports for the 29 largest stores in Salem and Keizer, more than half had not had an inspection in more than a year. Six had gone more than two years without an inspection and one, the Broadway Fred Meyer, had not been inspected in three years.

The Oregon Health Authority is responsible for inspecting restaurants, cafeterias and food carts. It delegates the job to county health departments. Last year, 97 percent of those inspections were completed on time, according to the Public Health Division's annual report on food safety.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is responsible for inspecting grocery stores, including in-store bakeries, delis and meat cutters.

But that's not all it does. The ODA's 34-member food safety unit also inspects the state's egg handlers; dairy farms; bakeries; shellfish and seafood handlers; food storage warehouses; locker plants; food, meat, dairy and beverage processors; and licensed domestic kitchens.

"We have over 7,000 licensees that in one sense or another need inspection or some kind of attention from us," ODA spokesman Bruce Pokarney said. "We've never had more than about three dozen people in the program."

Add to that the fact that grocery stores have become more like restaurants — with delis, bakeries and even sushi — and inspections take much longer, Pokarney said.

The backlog became so bad that in February, ODA asked the legislature for authority to spend nearly a half-million dollars to fund three additional part-time inspectors, through June 2015, who would be dedicated solely to retail food establishments.

In 2013, there were 12,186 total inspections scheduled at the lowest frequency possible, ODA Director Katy Coba wrote in a letter to legislators. Only 68 percent of those were actually completed, she said.

Ten months later, ODA officials aren't able to say what the backlog is. But they expect it hasn't changed much.

"It took a little time to get those three individuals hired," Barcellos said. "We're just now getting them on their feet and sending them out."

State Rep. Lew Frederick, vice chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said Oregon cut inspection capacity across departments decades ago.

"It's not just food inspections. It's DEQ, water issues, the geological folks. There's a whole range of government entities, bureaus that started getting cut," Frederick, D-Portland said.

Michael Roth, president of the nine-store Roth's Fresh Markets chain, remembers when state health inspectors made three checks per year.

"We appreciated when they came into the store," Roth said. "If they wanted to ramp back up to three times, Roth's would welcome that."

Peter McPartlin, Roth's meat and seafood director, explains some of the ways his stores ensure food safety at the Hayesville Roth's Fresh Markets in Salem on Dec. 1. Statesman Journal / Danielle Peterson