Archive for Thursday, October 23, 2003

State’s food inspection has ‘gaps,’ ‘tears’

Audit reports inefficiencies within system

October 23, 2003


— Before you take another bite or sip, consider this: Kansas' system of inspecting foods is inefficient, wasteful, and bureaucratic.

Though auditors with the Legislative Division of Post Audit found no evidence Kansans were experiencing a high number of food-borne illnesses, they concluded taxpayers were financing a food inspection system that should be more efficient, cheaper and safer.

"We should have a seamless system of food safety from the farm field to the dinner table," said state Sen. Derek Schmidt, R-Independence. "Our current system not only has seams, it has gaps and tears."

The fact that Kansas has managed to avoid major outbreaks of food-borne illnesses has more to do with the good work of inspectors despite a cockeyed system, he said.

State officials in charge of the inspections dismissed some of the audit's findings but pledged to evaluate the study and improve the level of food safety.

The state spends $6.57 million in state and federal monies to inspect more than 12,000 restaurants, 3,000 grocery stores, hundreds of dairies, food-processing plants and warehouses across Kansas.

Auditors said that cost could be cut by nearly 10 percent if inspectors were cross-trained and inspection frequencies better reflected the relative risk to the public's health.

While most news reports about food inspections deal with health violations at restaurants, the audit dealt more specifically with inspections of food at the grocer or processing plant.

The major recommendation of the audit was to bring the various food inspection functions under one state agency. Currently the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Department of Agriculture, both Cabinet-level agencies, have responsibility for various inspections.

Schmidt, a member of the Legislative Post Audit Committee, said the audit would "jump-start" legislation to place inspections under one agency.

Schmidt, who also is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he would prefer the state Agriculture Department have sole authority over food inspections because KDHE has a wide range of responsibilities in other areas of public health.

Food emergencies

The audit found that a lack of coordination between the Agriculture Department and KDHE delayed response times to several food safety emergencies.

In April, overlapping authority between the two departments resulted in delays in removing uninspected meat products that came from Mexico and another state. And in 2001, 16 million bushels of Kansas wheat was embargoed for a month while it was tested for a restricted-use pesticide.

"In both instances -- the uninspected meat products and the tainted wheat -- it's likely that KDHE and the Department of Agriculture could have responded more quickly if these inspection programs had been located in one agency, or if they had a plan to coordinate their roles," the audit stated.

KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby, however, pointed out that in both instances "at no time was the health of the public placed at risk by the actions of our two agencies working together."

Uneven inspections

The audit also found that some food establishments were probably being over-inspected, while others were under-inspected.

Milk processing plants were inspected to measure bacteria levels an average of nine times a year by the Agriculture Department, but juice and cider plants aren't even required to be inspected. The Agriculture Department inspected the state's 536 dairies an average of five times a year, while federal officials say two to four inspections per year is adequate.

But Greg Foley, assistant secretary of agriculture, said the audit's logic failed.

"The conclusion in the audit seems to claim that there were too many inspections because there were more inspections than the minimum required by statute. Merely determining the department met the minimum number of inspections does not guarantee food safety," Foley said.

In an example of duplication, the audit said a grocery store was most likely to be inspected by KDHE, but the agency may separately inspect a restaurant inside the grocery. Department of Agriculture inspectors also will come to the grocery to inspect eggs.

And the audit also found areas that were being left uncovered by inspections. In 2002, a change in state law essentially resulted in portions of 31 large food manufacturers not being inspected.

"Agency officials haven't approached the Legislature about correcting this gap in inspection coverage," the audit said.

"It's clear there is momentum for fixing the regulations and problems in our food-safety system," Schmidt said.

But Bremby and Foley said the two agencies already were working on the problems and would appoint a task force to improve food safety.

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