NEW YORK (FNS) -- The president of the Metropolitan Food Council blasted new legislation that will force supermarkets to post inspection results and allow a state agency to shut down outlets that fail three consecutive inspections.
The state law is a "serious mistake," said Howard B. Tisch, who spoke at a recent hearing held by the New York State Assembly Agriculture and Consumer Affairs and Protection committees and the Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy. "It's a poorly thought out and poorly worded law."
To take effect Jan. 1, 2001, the law enhances current inspection regulations, and places special emphasis on fresh-food operations inside food stores -- including supermarkets. While the law requires every food retailer in the state to submit to an inspection at least once a year, some state officials complained the current inspection system is already overburdened. Under the law, the inspection rate increases to twice a year for those stores who fail two inspections in a row, and after three inspection failures the Department of Agriculture and Markets can close a store or revoke its food-processing license.
The law also directs the department to train and assign inspectors specifically as "retail food specialists," responsible for working with retailers to remedy chronic problems and ensure that effective pest-control programs are in place.
The legislation came about as the result of a report by Assemblyman Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), entitled, "Enough to Make You Sick: An Analysis of New York City Supermarket Inspection Results." In his report, Klein alleged more than one half of the supermarkets in New York City failed health inspections in 1998 and 1999. The major "critical deficiencies" among these supermarkets were infestation by insects and rodents.
Other primary deficiencies: improper cleaning and sanitizing of food-contact equipment; inadequate hand-washing facilities due to a lack of hot running water or sinks near restrooms or food-preparation areas; and rodent-defiled food or ingredients, where droppings, urine or hair is found to have come into direct contact with exposed food, either in open containers or through rodent penetration of closed containers.
Now is a critical time to focus on food safety, Klein said, as more retailers assume the job of preparing ready-to-eat foods for a growing number of consumers.
"More needs to be done to either help bring the chronic failures up to code or close them down altogether," Klein said.
Among the objections they have to the legislation, retailers oppose a clause that requires supermarkets to post their most recent inspection results near the store's entrance, and make the results of any inspection available to the public upon request.
Tisch said the law would result in almost every supermarket in the state being forced to post failed inspections reports because of the "general deficiencies" that are inevitable.
"To the best of my knowledge no supermarket in the state has been inspected where they haven't had some of what they call general deficiencies," Tisch said. "And the language that is used to describe general deficiencies goes way beyond the understanding of the consumer.
"For example, if an employee is smoking a cigarette, it comes up as 'poor hygiene in activities of food handlers'. If you're a consumer, it's one thing to say that someone was smoking a cigarette and another thing to say the store has poor hygiene in food-handling activities."
The part of the law that allows the Department of Agriculture to close supermarkets after three failed inspections without a hearing may be found unconstitutional, Tisch said.
"Before you can even give a fine, you have to give a store the opportunity to defend itself," he said. "Here there is no possibility of defense."
Tisch said he isn't aware of the feelings of the supermarket industry about the new law, because the legislation generated little publicity and there was no notification when Gov. George E. Pataki signed the law.
Some state officials have voiced reservations about the regulations, complaining the current system of inspections is already overtaxed. H. Carl McCall, the state's comptroller, cited a 1999 audit by his office showing that nearly one third of the 28,000 retail food establishments operating in New York State had not been inspected on time during the previous 12 months. After the hearing, he publicly questioned the ability of the new law to overcome the ongoing backlog of uninspected stores.
Under the new law, the department will be required to hire more inspectors and train them in specialty areas to work with retail food stores.
The legislation is the strictest inspection program in the country, testified Michael Rosen, vice president for the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, a trade association representing the interests of New York's 21,000 food stores.
"We support the program, but one must understand that stores are failed for any condition which the state believes may lead to an unsanitary condition which can, in turn, result in unsafe food," Rosen said. "New York does not limit failures to stores where one finds adulterated foods, as some have suggested."
According to Rosen, New York City's elimination of its rodent control bureau resulted in an "explosive growth in the rodent population," which in turn caused some stores in contaminated neighborhoods to have rodent problems. Last year, the presence of rodents and/or insects was found in nearly 18 percent of inspections, Rosen said.
"It is important to note that figure indicates the presence of rodents or insects, most of which, we hope, are no longer alive, not that food has been adulterated," he said.
Another problem -- insects inevitably find their way into stores when homeless people bring aluminum cans in to redeem them, Rosen said.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Klein said he found the testimony helpful, particularly the comments from the medical community on food-borne illness.
"We were told that people can get a whole host of diseases by eating food that has had contact with pests," Klein said. "I think we got the point across that this is really a serious health problem, and we want to make sure that the state Department of Agriculture and Markets now enforces the law come Jan. 1. We also have a commitment in the testimony we received from the supermarket industry that they're going to educate their members about complying with the new law."