I dug Uncle Tad’s ear trumpet from the attic, thinking my ears might have missed the uproar. But there’s apparently no outcry to be heard. The federal government is about to spend an unimaginable sum to shore up the nation’s infrastructure. Yet the industry hasn’t so much as uttered an ahem for a piece of the foundation that’s been crumbling for years, putting the business and its customers in peril. Joaquin Phoenix showed more fire during his Letterman appearance.

Clearly the nation’s food-safety system is broken, to the point where China’s regulators could shake their heads in disgust over our peanut butter scandal. Protecting the public is the core responsibility of government. But that duty has been reassessed by jurisdictions struggling to keep snow off the roads, police on the streets, and heat in the schools. They just can’t afford as many restaurant sanitation inspections as they did in the past, never mind the step-up favored by the public and the industry.

Earlier this year, for instance, Arlington, Texas, pink-slipped all five of the sanitation experts who inspected the city’s 2,000 restaurants. That’s ludicrous. But even the situation it supplanted, of having inspectors check 400 restaurants a year, would get a rating of “ridiculous.”

Yet the dangers of a lax safety system are as evident as the daily notices of peanut-product recalls. Cost pressures are prompting many restaurants to trim staff and cut corners. It’s tougher for a business to follow best practices when it’s struggling to stay afloat. Nonetheless, experts say the industry’s exposure is increasing as kitchens stock more imported products and germs seem to crop up more frequently. Massachusetts, for instance, is seeing a “significant number of gastrointestinal illness outbreaks” this year, including eight in food-handling facilities, according to the state’s department of health. That compares with none during the same six-week period of 2008, it noted.

Now billions of dollars are about to be channeled to the states, which routinely route dollars to counties and cities, as determined by a mass of variables. The labyrinth of federal requirements and conditions will no doubt also complicate the process. Overlay the probable competition among government departments for funds, and you have a situation where sanitation departments may be left with a relatively empty beaker.

The restaurant industry should help itself by yelping for more aggressive promotion of food safety on the city, county and state levels. If the objective of the spending is to create or protect jobs, let some of those positions be sanitation inspection posts. If reducing healthcare and insurance costs is another aim of the White House, let the elimination of food-borne illness be part of the effort. And if helping small businesses is indeed an aim, help the most prevalent one of all.

It’s time for the industry to make some noise.

Keep abreast of industry news via my blog, Restaurant Reality Check, or follow me at twitter.com/peterromeo.

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Tags: FDA, Food, government, inspectors, regulation, restaurant, safety

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Comment by Michael L. Atkinson on February 27, 2009 at 12:51pm
Thanks Peter. I was in a discussion years ago with operators about the concept of privatizing municipal health inspections. But it always seemed to circle back to who would be qualified and who would pay. Well, restaurants would, of course. Those that received an "A" would pay less than those that received a "C". Seems logical to me. As to who would be qualified? Ecolab came up as suitable and qualified, as did local janitorial companies, even the bag-in-a-box folks were listed as possible inspectors, which I thought was interesting. I am not recommending them or this as a strategy necessarily. But, I am concerned enough about or food chain to have become a pescitarian.

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