More than 100 places that distribute food in Los Banos have not been inspected by the Merced County Environmental Health Division in at least two years, according to a grand jury report.
The report cited understaffing as the reason for the lax oversight of food handlers.
Environmental Health, a division of the Health Department, is tasked with annual inspections where food is distributed — restaurants, convenience stores, hospitals, etc. Reports on how the establishments fare are placed on a county website that lists ratings and descriptions of problems. After two years, the reports are dropped from the website.
There are nearly 900 places subject to inspection in Merced County, according to Environmental Health.
In Los Banos, there are 140 eateries and other businesses that carry or prepare food. Twenty-eight of them are listed on the county website.
The 2012-13 Merced County grand jury investigated the issue and listed its findings in June. “Some areas of the county are only inspected if a complaint is received because there is not an assigned inspector in a district. Inspectors fill in as needed for the vacant positions. Many businesses that were not on the food inspection list were not reassigned when inspectors retired or moved to other districts.
“Some facilities with an unsatisfactory rating have not been re-inspected within thirty days as required by law,” the grand jury report states.
The grand jury recommends that the department bring in temporary or volunteer staff to handle paperwork and other duties to free inspectors to get out to more sites, and require inspectors to write reports in the field on laptop computers.
The food inspector in Los Banos retired more than a year ago. Since then, one-fifth of the annual food inspections have been completed.
“That’s not good,” Merced County Supervisor Jerry O’Banion said of the backlog. “They need to get on to the inspections.”'
O’Banion said from viewing the website, it appears that all of the establishments in Dos Palos that have food received their annual inspections. He said he expected to see a discrepancy on the entire Westside, not just Los Banos.
Vicki Jones, the county’s supervising environmental health specialist, acknowledged that the staffing issues in the grand jury report do exist. “There is a shortage in staff. We recently filled two new staff member positions, they’ve finished training,” Jones said.
She said one reason her division is behind on food inspections is numerous other duties — investigating land-use complaints, solid waste inspections and housing inspections, among others.
Jones said the Environmental Health Division is reorganizing its district boundaries. The move is designed to allow inspectors to have a more comprehensive coverage area.
The new format is expected to be in place in a few weeks, Jones said.
O’Banion said he understands the staffing issue, but there are precautions the public can take.
“An individual should use their own discretion,” he said. “If I went into a place and thought it was dirty, I wouldn’t patronize it.”
Jones said people can go into any establishment that carries food and ask to see its most recent inspection report.
Michael Amabile’s España’s Southwest Bar and Grill has not been inspected since at least 2011.
“I’m like a cleanliness freak myself, so I’m not worried about España’s. What bothers me is in this economy with restaurants opening up, I’m worried about going to a restaurant where somebody’s cutting corners,” Amabile said. “They’re supposed to be checking for food-borne disease.” Amabile also said he believes the Merced County Environmental Health Division should adopt an A through F grading system. The division uses the term “good” to represent the best mark an establishment can have.
Jones said the goal of Environmental Health is to get caught up on the food inspections. She did not have a specific time frame for when the remaining 112 annual inspections in Los Banos will be complete.
“As soon as possible,” she said.