Proposal Would Reduce Health Inspections

Proposal Would Reduce Health Inspections

When a Fairfax County health inspector made a routine inspection of a 7-Eleven on the 4200 block of Annandale Road in Annandale on Oct. 3, 2005, packages of expired hot dogs were found sitting in the store’s refrigerators, fruit flies were buzzing around the drink dispenser and hot dogs, tacos and string cheese were all being stored at unsafe temperatures.

These were among the nine critical violations — defined as likely to directly contribute to food contamination or illness — that the inspector found, according to Fairfax County Health Department inspection reports, and the start of what would eventually be 15 more critical violations uncovered at the same location in the following two months.

Health inspectors found 544 critical violations at 91 Fairfax County 7-Eleven locations since the start of 2005, according to Fairfax County health inspection records.

But a recent proposal by the county health department would eliminate the inspections that uncovered these violations and others found at convenient stores throughout Fairfax County. The Board of Supervisors will consider the provision as proposed earlier this month by Fairfax County’s Department of Health and Environmental Safety.

If the health department proposal is adopted, approximately 200 convenient stores and gas stations — establishments that are normally inspected twice a year by the county and once by the state — would see at least two-thirds of their annual inspections eliminated. Once a county inspector finds a violation, those businesses may receive far more than current three times in a year.

The health department calculated the total number of critical violations at establishments that would no longer be inspected under this proposal in response to a Connection Newspapers request, then declined to provide the information unless the Connection paid for the staff time to research the data. Health department officials admitted that they had not compiled this data prior to this proposal.

THE PROPOSED elimination of inspections in Fairfax County is part of a broader push by Fairfax County, Arlington County and the city of Alexandria to update health criteria to meet new — often less stringent — standards adopted by the federal FDA in its updated 2005 food code.

Eliminating approximately 200 of the roughly 3,200 facilities that fall in the jurisdiction of county health inspectors will free up more resources to have multiple yearly inspections of restaurants that fall into a "high risk" category, according to Tom Crow, director of Environmental Health Services with the Fairfax County Department of Health.

Establishments listed as "high risk" are those that work with raw foods and other products that increase the potential for food-borne illness, Crow said.

Convenient stores and gas stations are listed by the FDA as category 1, "lesser risk" establishments, and recommended to be inspected once a year, he added.

"When the FDA made that recommendation, they did understand that [county] health inspections find those critical violations," Crow said. "But the FDA is based on a total risk factor of an establishment instead of just how many violations were there on one specific day."

"About 65 percent of the [3,200] restaurants in Fairfax County fall into this high risk class category and we don't have the staff to do all of these restaurants four times a year," Crow said. "By eliminating [convenient stores and gas stations] from our jurisdiction, we're getting closer to adopting the risk-based approach to inspections."

While the FDA recommends that restaurants deemed as "high risk" be inspected more than those deemed of a lesser risk, Fairfax County does not have enough resources to make this distinction, he added.

THE COUNTY health department proposed the county-wide elimination of inspections after county health officials had a series of meetings with industry representatives, including the Southland Corporation, the Dallas, Tex.-based parent company to convenience store chain 7-Eleven, according to Fairfax County board documents. Fairfax County’s 7-Elevens make up about half of the establishments whose inspections would be eliminated under the proposal.

Calls made to Southland Corporation requesting an interview were not returned by press time.

Arlington County, Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria are the only localities in the state that supplement the annual inspections conducted by the Virginia Department of Agriculture, according to Crow.

As justification for the elimination of inspections, the Department of Health presented the Board of Supervisors with statistics showing that in the past six years, only 77 of 4,359 total complaints of unsanitary practices made by citizens came from these establishments while four of 901 complaints in this same period involved suspicions of food-borne illness.

Crow added that in the past two years, no confirmed cases of food-borne illness associated with these establishments have been reported in Fairfax County, in spite of more than 500 critical health violations.

JUST BECAUSE THERE are relatively few complaints about convenience stores and gas stations should not deter officials from regularly inspecting these establishments, according to Barbara Kowalcyk, president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a national food safety advocacy group.

"The employees [of convenience stores] are not necessarily properly trained in food safety regulations and sanitation, and if it's not a national chain with more oversight, the risk could increase markedly," Kowalcyk said. "How many convenience stores have you gone in to with no hot water? How many convenience stores have you been to where the clerks handling the food aren't wearing gloves?"

"To me, I would think that there would be a higher risk associated with convenience stores ... for just these reasons," she added. "Eliminating these [county] inspections could cause more places to slip through the cracks," of meeting health regulations.

"I understand the need of the government to prioritize," Kowalcyk said. "But to prioritize on the class of an establishment is probably not the best way to do that."

WHILE THE DEPARTMENT of Health and Environmental Safety in Fairfax County has made the proposal to eliminate convenience store and gas station inspections, health department officials from both Arlington County and the city of Alexandria have said that no proposals are being made to eliminate the inspection of convenient stores and gas stations.

"We will find violations of 7-Eleven just like a full-service restaurant ... but not any more than any other licensed facility," said Richard Cole, Environmental Health supervisor with Arlington County's Department of Health. "They're selling a number of potentially harmful products ... that could lead to a higher risk of violations."

"As long as there is a risk to the public, we're going to continue to inspect them."

"We did look at [Arlington County and Alexandria not eliminating convenient store inspections], but what it came down to is that if you look at our workload, it’s significantly higher than Arlington," Crow said. "We didn’t have that luxury of continuing to conduct these inspections" and, at the same time, pay more attention to higher risk establishments.