Rats, bugs and spoiled meat are some of the things a health inspector looks for when visiting the kitchen of a South Carolina restaurant.
It’s a government service intended to keep restaurants clean and diners from getting sick.
But the state’s restaurant inspection program is suffering. Unprecedented budget cuts have shrunk the health department’s state funding from $147 million to $81 million in the past two years, and the agency has encouraged staffers across the department to retire or resign. It also has not filled vacant jobs.
That’s costing programs like the restaurant inspection service, which has fewer people to monitor an increasing number of restaurants.
Since 2008, the Department of Health and Environmental Control has lost about 20 restaurant inspectors, shrinking the total number to about 100, according to DHEC’s most recent annual accountability report. As a short-term measure, the department has trained septic tank inspectors to help out. But the report says the agency can’t guarantee those employees will always be available.
Meanwhile, the number of food establishments rose by 54 percent in the past five years, the agency says. In 2005, South Carolina had 11,976 restaurants and other places that serve food. Today, the state has 18,482, DHEC reported Friday.
All the cutting has the food inspection program, one of the most basic public health services the agency provides, struggling to check the cleanliness of restaurants.
The number of routine, unannounced inspections dropped to 2.01 per food service facility in 2010 from an average of 2.25 per facility last year, according to reports filed by DHEC with the state Office of Budget. Follow-up inspections — those done after sanitation or other problems are noted during routine inspections — dropped to an average of less than 1 per facility from an average of 1.04 per facility in the same time frame, DHEC budget reports show.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends four routine unannounced inspections a year.
All told, DHEC did about 12,000 fewer inspections in fiscal year 2010 than it did the previous year. The number of food service inspections dropped to 84,823 this year from 97,173 in 2009, according to information provided to The State.
“This is about as bad as I have seen it in my career here at DHEC,’’ said a long-time restaurant inspection manager who, because of an agency policy discouraging interviews with The State, could not be identified.
In addition to restaurants, the budget crunch has made it difficult to get to fairs, carnivals and festivals where food is served. Staffing shortages sometimes limit DHEC from doing any inspections for temporary food service operations, the agency acknowledges.
This year, DHEC says, budget cuts forced it to reduce the number of restaurant inspectors at the S.C. State Fair, a 12-day event that attracted nearly a half-million people to Columbia earlier in the month. Food vendors lined the midway, selling everything from turkey legs and corn dogs to fried cookies and french fries.
Agency officials did not say how many health inspectors went to the fair this year. But they spent less time there, the agency acknowledged Friday.
It’s difficult to determine whether a lack of inspections is contributing to illnesses. DHEC did not provide a list of complaints for the past five years, as requested by The State under the Freedom of Information Act.
Agency officials have said that if DHEC receives a complaint about illness, the department will focus attention on that establishment.
In the past two years, South Carolina has had 27 reported food-borne illness outbreaks, according to DHEC reports filed with the state budget office.
Whether for a lack of inspections or some other reason, food poisoning is a deadly threat.
Under-cooked, salmonella-tainted turkey, for instance, likely caused one death and contributed to the illness of 300 others at one Camden restaurant in 2005. Last year in Horry County, dozens of people became ill after eating at a Republican Party function in Myrtle Beach and at a church fundraiser in Conway.
In the past two years, total funds for DHEC’s general sanitation program, which includes restaurant inspections, nose-dived to $6.6 million from $8.5 million. State funding fell to $2.8 million from $3.77 million in the same two years.
– Sammy Fretwell and Noelle Phillips