Expired licenses, lack of inspections common in city eateries, audit finds

Review from '02-'03 also notes poor record-keeping

February 17, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Nearly one out of four food service facilities in Baltimore operated with an expired license, and one out of 10 did not receive required inspections, according to a city audit released yesterday.

City Auditor Yovanda D. Brooks told the Board of Estimates that the city's Department of Audits also found evidence of poor record-keeping, with "inadequate, disorganized" files and failure to assess proper renewal fees.

The review of the Health Department's Bureau of Food Control covered July 1, 2002, through Dec. 31, 2003, and was based on a sampling of regulatory files.

Brooks said the bureau has made an effort to correct the problem since being presented with the audit findings.

Assistant City Health Commissioner Olivia D. Farrow, who came on at the end of the audit period to head the division overseeing the food bureau, said she halted inspections for three weeks in September to allow staff to concentrate on organizing and updating the files.

"We realized the files were a mess," Farrow said.

"We acknowledge that previous to my tenure there were some management problems," she added. "We're working every day to make continuing corrections."

The audit did not address whether the problems with record-keeping and inspections led to any health risks. The purpose of the review was to determine whether bureau practices ensured that food service facilities had valid licenses, were inspected in accordance with health regulations, and had fees and licenses properly collected, the audit said.

City Council President Sheila Dixon, chairwoman of the five-member Board of Estimates, said the council raised food-service licensing fees in the 1990s with the expectation that the added revenue would be used to hire more inspectors and install better management systems. She expressed concern that little apparently was done and asked health officials to come back to the board in two months to report on further progress.

"This is not a new problem," Dixon said after the meeting. "It wasn't a priority for the health commissioner. It should be."

According to the audit, 29 of 125 files of food service facilities that were reviewed had not renewed their licenses on time, "subsequently operating with expired licenses." Late fees for 19 of those facilities were not properly assessed and collected, the audit said.

The audit also found that for 2003, 12 of 125 establishments in the audit had not been inspected often enough, and three of those were not inspected at all.

Under health codes, establishments considered at high risk for food-borne diseases must be inspected three times a year; those considered at moderate risk must be inspected twice annually; and those considered at low risk must be inspected every two years.

In a written response to the finding, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner, said the Bureau of Food Control "makes extraordinary efforts to comply with all inspection mandates." In all but one case reviewed by auditors, he said, the bureau "inspected or attempted to inspect the facility."

"The bureau has also begun to develop a team inspection approach to help target certain types of food venues to ensure that mandated inspections are met," Beilenson wrote.

The bureau, which has an annual budget of $1.2 million, has one part-time and 10 full-time inspectors. Each year, it conducts about 11,000 inspections of restaurants, stores and other retail facilities; investigates about 1,000 complaints; and closes about 400 establishments, officials said.

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