By Cynthia Washam
Health News Florida
Health departments stopped checking kitchens at day-care centers, hospitals and nursing homes on July 1 under a new law intended to spare business owners the expense and burden of multiple state inspections.
Nursing homes and hospitals are visited by the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA); child-care centers comes under the Department of Children and Families (DCF). But neither agency does kitchen and food-safety inspections, health officials say. They warn that the new law the young, old and sick are particularly vulnerable to food-borne illness.
- Compact Shuffles Bad Nurses Like Parishes Shuffling Bad Priests
- Feds, Not Florida, Will Pay for Medicaid’s 1 Million New Beneficiaries
- Florida Legislature’s Spending Misleadingly Labeled as Pork
- Florida Medicaid Audit Reveals Shockingly Poor Oversight
“People in public health realize a mistake’s been made,” said Jim Moses, environmental-health director for St. Lucie County. “I’m concerned that a lot of places where people are at risk are not going to get inspected.”
Lawmakers dismiss the concerns as an attempt to protect the status quo of an overgrown health department that’s lost sight of its mission.
“There was duplication,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley (R-Sebring), chairwoman of the House Health Care Appropriations Committee and chief sponsor of the bill. “There’s no reason we need two agencies inspecting. It’s one less thing for hospitals and nursing homes to deal with.”
The inspections aren’t really duplicative, according to DOH data. DOH inspected nursing home kitchens’ safety of food storage and preparation every three months. AHCA inspects nursing homes only every 12 to 15 months and evaluates food only for its nutritional value. The agency omits food service from its periodic hospital inspections. DCF inspects child-care centers three times a year, but has left food-service inspections to the DOH. Critics of the new law are especially concerned about youngsters in the 500 Florida child-care centers that are exempt from DCF licensing because of their religious affiliation. DOH was the only government agency inspecting these facilities.
House Bill 5311, which took kitchen inspections from the Department of Health, passed with little objection and even had the department’s support because it included funds for trauma centers and biomedical research. And it was less drastic than the complete overhaul of the department that some lawmakers had called for, led by Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples.
A group of legislators “would just love to dismantle the DOH,” said Rep. James Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, vice chairman of the House Health Care Appropriations Committee. “That vote was to send a message.”
The message he and Grimsley emphasized was no more duplication.
“Our staff all have a minimum bachelor’s degree in science and pass a state-certification exam in food-service inspections,” said David Overfield, environmental-health administrator for the Orange County Health Department. “I don’t know that they look at the same things in the way we did.”
They certainly don’t, says Holly Wallsmith, owner of two Volusia County child-care centers and secretary of the Florida Association for Child Care Management. Wallsmith welcomes the savings of $420 a year in inspection fees that she’ll realize without DOH inspections, yet she worries about the loss of the health inspectors’ keen eyes.
“This is a disservice to the Department of Children and Families because they’ll have more responsibility, less training and less funding,” she said.
Environmental administrator Brian Miller of the Hillsborough County Health Department expects a lapse in inspection quality as DCF workers learn the ropes.
“It will take at least a few months to bring them up to our standards,” Miller said.
Frishe sees no reason DCF and AHCA workers can’t inspect kitchens and questions the need for a bachelor of science degree for food-service inspectors. “I’ve gone through kitchens before and I know what to look for,” said Frishe.
Another casualty of the law is church-based food pantries and soup kitchens. But lawmaker Grimsley counters that churches doing charity work should be spared from state regulation.
“Soup kitchens feed people who wouldn’t eat,” she said. “You regulate people to death. I don’t think we should be there.”
News of the DOH’s removal from facilities feeding Florida’s most vulnerable residents caught the attention of the Washington-based advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“Health inspectors provide a critical check at food establishments,” said CSPI attorney Sarah Klein. “It’s inherently risky to say, ‘Let’s let those institutions handle food safety themselves with little oversight.’ We tried to publicize the issue so other states see that there’s an outcry against it.”
Cynthia Washam is an independent journalist in Jensen Beach.