Baton Rouge, La. - Department of Health Secretary Kathy Kliebert and Public Health Assistant Secretary J.T. Lane joined industry leaders today in downtown Baton Rouge to highlight major changes to the Retail Food Inspection Program. Program improvements over the last year have allowed health inspectors who survey restaurants, grocery stores, cafeterias and other retail food vendors to conduct timely inspections at all permitted locations, track compliance orders and post survey results quickly to the EatSafe.La.gov website. This dramatic overhaul was identified by Office of Public Health staff through an internal review and with LDH's requested assistance of recommendations from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.
"I am so proud of the work that our health inspectors, Beth Scalco, Tenney Sibley, Mike Vidrine and the entire team led by J.T. in the Office of Public Health, have done over the last year to vastly improve the safety of Louisiana residents and visitors," said Kliebert. "It was just 11 months ago that we announced publicly our commitment to transform our Retail Food Inspection Program. These changes are proof that we can look critically at our own programs, identify what is broken and lay out a clear, manageable plan for how to fix it. I know I certainly feel safer going out to eat at my favorite restaurant with my family knowing that our health inspectors are ensuring the safety and cleanliness of the kitchen in which the food is prepared."
For years, the Department's retail food inspection program lagged behind on inspections and struggled to identify high-risk establishments. Today, after a comprehensive, statewide overhaul, the Department was completely caught up on all of those inspections as of Oct. 1. Health inspectors are now inspecting food retailers in real time, tracking the high-risk vendors and ensuring compliance orders are followed up on in a timely manner.
"Our health inspectors have done a phenomenal job at reprioritizing and reworking how and when they inspect retail food vendors. They played an equal role with other internal and external experts in transforming our operations," said Public Health Assistant Secretary J.T. Lane. "The changes we made demonstrate an ability to be critical evaluators of our own programs, to identify needed changes and retool the system. The legislative audit gave us additional invaluable information about programmatic changes to help improve how we protect the health and safety of consumers."
As a result of the changes made during the program overhaul, total inspections increased 60 percent from August 2012 to September 2013. Just in the period between March and May of this year after some of the early changes were initiated, inspections increased 47 percent.
"The LRA is proud to work with the LDH as a partner in delivering an enviable record in food safety outcomes for our residents and visitors. Developing clear, reasonable regulations with quality field support and inspections provides a best in class program for continuing on the historically positive results we have enjoyed," said Stan Harris, president and CEO of the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
"I can't endorse this initiative enough," said John Snow, board president of the Baton Rouge Mobile Food Vendors Association. "The public benefits of enhanced access to real-time information and regular, consistent food inspections are tremendous and do nothing but reaffirm the efforts of those who maintain a healthy, safe food environment while motivating higher-risk vendors to make the necessary changes that better serve the community as a whole."
"The Louisiana Retailers Association represents the grocery and supermarket industry in Louisiana, and our members are committed to providing Louisiana consumers with safe, fresh food products," said Dawn Johnson, president of the Louisiana Retailers Association. "Consumers must be able to trust that their food is healthy and safe; therefore, food safety and sanitation is a top priority for the retail industry. We are very pleased with the improvements that LDH has made to the retail food inspection system. Inspecting grocery stores and other retail food vendors on a regular schedule is of utmost importance to the industry. As with any industry, there are those that are not adhering to regulations and standards and those vendors need to be identified in order for violations to be addressed."
The overhaul included four key components:
- 1. A new electronic management tool to prioritize inspections, identify high-risk establishments and better manage the time of sanitarians conducting the inspections;
- 2. A centralized and standardized reporting process to allow follow-up visits and corrective action plans to be clearly outlined and implemented by health inspectors;
- 3. A new set of performance metrics and evaluation tools for improving the morale and efficiency of the individuals responsible for all food retailers. These evaluation tools prioritize quality of inspections over the sheer quantity so that inspectors are evaluated for making smart choices about how inspections should be prioritized; and
- 4. A streamlined procedure for compliance orders. Inspections were meaningless before the programmatic changes when they were not tracked by our inspectors. Compliance is essential because it means that improvements are made to ensure that all consumers including, children who eat lunch at the school cafeteria and families who go out for dinner are safer.
One of the biggest keys to ensuring we can inspect all of the locations that sell food throughout the state is one of the simplest things - an electronic scheduler that prioritizes inspections according to guidelines from the federal government and tracks information on the history of a location.
The scheduler goes hand in hand with a Daily Success Action Plan for each employee. There are literally thousands of food retailers across the state which LDH employees are responsible for inspecting. Utilizing simple tools and technology to make their jobs more meaningful helps to keep inspections occurring on schedule.
Retail food vendor inspections are entered into the monitoring system within 48 hours of completion and are available for all consumers to view at EatSafe.La.gov within seven days.