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More food inspectors

Published (4/1/2011)
By Sue Hegarty
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Rep. Rod Hamilton has the last word on the House floor before final passage of the omnibus agriculture and rural development finance bill March 30. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)While many state government agencies brace for budget cuts, a Department of Agriculture food inspection program is anticipating a funding boost.

The additional $490,000 would be a one-time appropriation over the next biennium to catch up with an estimated 40 percent backlog of inspections at convenience stores, grocers and other retail food handling outlets. It does not include retail restaurants, which are inspected by the Department of Health.

The accelerated inspections are proposed in the omnibus agriculture and rural development finance bill that was passed March 30 by the House. A conference committee is expected to iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions.

About 23 full-time equivalent inspectors currently check the cleanliness of retail food facilities, the temperature of walk-in coolers and freezers, employee handling methods, and steps taken to prevent cross-contamination of ingredients, among other things. Each averages about 300 inspections per year.

Sponsored by Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake), HF1039/ SF1016* also would require a report by Feb. 1, 2013, on the department’s progress to close the inspection gap.

The department also is being asked to cross-train inspectors wherever possible. For example, meat inspectors would also learn to inspect dairy facilities.

Members of the House Agriculture and Rural Development Policy and Finance Committee sought assurances that the reason for the inspection backlog wasn’t because inspectors were licensing home parties, such as Tastefully Simple or Watkins product sales.

Kay Thibodeaux, founder of the Suburban Home-based Business Association and a team leader with Dove Chocolate Discoveries, said some sellers have been told they need a retail food handler’s license to take orders at home parties. Association members have been approached by inspectors and told that they can’t sell, display or sample products in a public setting, such as a craft show, without a license.

“Our delinquency rate that we calculated is not based on those home businesses,” said Heidi Kassenborg, director of the Agriculture Department’s dairy and food inspection division. Rather, they include high-risk facilities, such as grocery stores, she said.

Retail food handler licenses cost $50 when annual food sales are under $15,000. The license fee for sales between $15,000 and $50,000 is $77. Fees have not been raised since 2003 and no one is suggesting a fee increase this year. Instead, the division will receive the funding boost to hire about three additional inspectors. Kassenborg said it takes about

18 months to train someone to conduct high-risk retail inspections. The appropriation is enough to decrease the backlog to a 25 percent delinquency rate by 2013.

Licenses are issued based on gross annual sales, so the division focuses on the larger grossing facilities first, she said.

However, the division does receive questions surrounding home-based businesses and parties. Direct sellers might store the product in their basement, garage or freezer. There is a fine line between stocking enough for a craft show and becoming a food warehouse.

“If they’re storing a lot of product, they may need to be licensed because there are issues with rodents. Sometimes storing things in a home freezer where other things can be probably isn’t the best idea. Those things we have to take on a case-by-case basis,” Kassenborg said.

The division has worked on a home party policy with Tastefully Simple and Kassenborg said it does not include going into private residences to inspect or license home parties.

There are an estimated 10,000 independent sellers of products representing up to 14 different companies, according to Thibodeaux. Nationwide, such businesses account for $16.1 million in direct sales and $23.3 billion in retail sales, she said.

“I would like to see, if it’s going to be enforced, that it needs to be fairly enforced across all people who are direct selling or not at all,” Thibodeaux said.

Some types of sellers are exempt, such as home canners and farmers markets. Thibodeaux said some direct sellers are sales people and not the manufacturer of the product. She’d like to see the inspection and fee requirements stop at the manufacturing level and not charge a retail food handler license fee to those who sell pre-packaged food products.

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