The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department will no longer conduct food service inspections at 435 local restaurants.
The department announced Tuesday that its $90,000 contract with the Kansas Department of Agriculture will be terminated.
Beginning Jan. 9, KDA will take over restaurant inspections in Douglas County as well as Geary, Reno, Riley and Saline counties, where it has contracts. The contracts are for food safety inspections at restaurants and other operations where food is served for immediate consumption on or off site.
Have a food complaint?
To report a food safety concern, contact the Kansas Department of Agriculture at (785) 296-7430 or (785) 296-5600.
The department also has a form online at www.ksda.gov/open_records/id/13.
Food safety inspectors from KDA are also in those counties to inspect grocery and convenience stores, food processors and manufacturers, and food wholesalers and warehouses, and they will take over inspecting food service operations as they do in other counties.
The five county contracts cost KDA about $245,000 each year, or 8.4 percent of its $2.9 million budget for food safety.
KDA oversees about 16,600 food licenses, including 593 in Douglas County. The three inspectors who oversaw the other food inspections will pick up the restaurant inspections.
“It’s realigning our resources to make better use of what we’ve got,” said Lisa Taylor, communications director with KDA. “Everyone is being impacted by the cuts that we are seeing to government agencies, and we have to make a decision about, ‘Can we do the work that we need to do with the resources that we have?’ This was an opportunity to streamline our operation to make it more efficient.”
Taylor said there are some facilities — for example, a grocery store with a food service section like a Chinese kitchen or sushi bar — that are visited by two inspectors. The county inspects the food service operation while a state inspector inspects the retail operation.
“There would be a redundancy there,” she said.
The contract cuts come on the heels of KDA’s announcement last week that it would cut safety and sanitation inspections of hotels, motels and other overnight lodging operations.
The agency lost $303,000 in Gov. Mark Parkinson’s latest round of state budget cuts. The cost of the lodging program inspection program is $240,000 annually.
“We have had some cuts to our budget,” Taylor said. “We suspended lodging inspections as a result of the last round of cuts, so we looked at it as an opportunity to kind of shift things around a little bit.”
The department moved three full-time lodging inspectors into the state’s food safety program.
According to KDA, the current facility-to-inspector ratio is 391 to 1. After the contracts end, the ratio will be 400 to 1.
“It’s the same level of service,” Taylor said. “It’s that we are going to be doing it internally rather than farming the work out. So, it’s not going to have any impact on the public whatsoever.”
Dan Partridge, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said the move already has had an effect locally. Two longtime employees will lose their jobs.
“We’ve had to say good-bye to two employees who have been here — 10 and 15 years respectively,” Partridge said. “That’s not a pleasant thing. It also means that the capacity to provide environmental health services at the local level are diminished.”
Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 of this year, the health department staff conducted 823 restaurant inspections, 87 of which were complaints that were responded to within 24 hours.
From the start of is contract with KDA in May 2008, the health department has been inspecting each facility at least twice a year. State law requires annual inspections of food establishments.
“It’s puzzling to me how inspectors can take on this significant amount of work on top of what they were already doing and continue at the pace we were providing services,” Partridge said.
Dr. Alan Cowles, chairman of the local health department board, described the KDA’s decision as unwise.
“Our residents are very concerned about food safety,” Cowles said. “We have some of the finest restaurants in the state, and of course, we want to keep it that way. People want to go out and eat and be assured that what they are eating is safe.”
Taylor said KDA will base its inspections on the number of violations that a facility receives.
“Those facilities that have more critical violations are going to get more visits from us,” Taylor said. “The facilities that do well on their inspections, obviously don’t get inspected as often. So it’s all based on what we find. But, the law requires once a year.”
The department will continue its contracts with health departments in Johnson and Sedgwick counties, where the concentration of restaurants and other food service operations are highest, and in Lyon County, where there is no state inspector close enough to adequately cover that territory.