Thursday, November 17, 2005

Definitely a rubber-glove situation

It looks as if the restaurants of Pennsylvania have been caught in a political crossfire.

At 11:15 this morning, Auditor General Jack Wagner issued the results of a “special audit” of the state’s restaurant-inspection system. The report all but accused the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the program’s administrator, of farming rats and cockroaches in the places it was supposed to keep clean and sanitary. Instead, said Wagner’s office, the “Department of Agriculture was putting public health at risk.”

The Department of the Auditor General noted that restaurants in the state have to renew their licenses annually. To re-up, they first have to be inspected. Yet 4,000 of the state’s 17,597 establishments holding valid permits had not been inspected in at least two years, Wagner’s office said. It cited one restaurant that hadn’t been inspected for six years—literally since the last century.

And even if a place was inspected, the report asserted, it could serve bacteria culture in petrie dishes without fear of being sanctioned. Fines were seldom levied, according to the Auditor General, and other penalties were both “rare” and “insignificant.” It noted that establishments written up for health-code violations like the presence of rodents or “deficient sewage” were allowed to remain in operation; not one license was pulled during the two-year period that was the focus of the audit (Jan. 1, 2002 through Dec. 31, 2004; curiously, no reason was given for the 11-month lag in releasing the findings, despite the Auditor’s repeated warnings that they underscore a dire health threat).

In most instances, the report suggested, not even a warning letter was sent out. “Consequently, public eating and drinking places had little incentive to make changes,” Wagner was quoted as saying in a press release.

His office offered 20 recommendations to remedy the situation, including such radical measures as inspecting each restaurant once a year.

At 12:33 that afternoon, the Department of Agriculture responded. It announced that it would start to fix its admittedly “antiquated” inspection system by spending $600,000--$600,000!—on a website where restaurants’ inspection scores could be posted. I spend almost as much on gas for my car.

It’s a shot of Bactine for a sucking chest wound.

You just know where this is heading. One government agency slams another for its laxity. Either the criticized agency loses its mandate—and you get the sense that the Department of the Auditor General wouldn’t mind such an occurrence—or it becomes Wyatt Earp, proving it’s the baddest law enforcer ever to wield the ability to fine. If a restaurant is the scene of so much as a gnat fly-over, it’ll be called to task.

Certainly it seems like a situation that has to be fixed. But the solution will hopefully address the risk, such as it is, instead of being forged by political considerations. And yet we know that politicians just can't help themselves. In this case, maybe they won't be helping restaurants, either.

No comments:

Post a Comment