JUNEAU - State regulators who say their food safety program doesn't work as it was intended are considering a plan to require restaurant managers to inspect their own businesses.
"Our goal is to develop a program that we can deliver and that protects, and we clearly needed to take a different tack," said Ernesta Ballard, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. "We were not performing," Ballard said.
The current program calls for food establishments to be inspected one to four times a year, depending on the level of risk associated with them, said Kristin Ryan, director of the Division of Environmental Health.
But with just 32 employees and 10,000 restaurants, seafood plants, tattoo parlors, swimming pools and other facilities to inspect - some accessible only by boat or plane - the state is falling short of its goals, Ryan said.
Only about 60 percent of the high risk facilities are being inspected once a year, despite the state's goal of inspecting such facilities four times a year, Ryan said.
The other 40 percent of high-risk facilities, such as seafood plants, do not get checked even once a year. The low-risk ones, such as coffee carts, are seldom inspected unless there is a complaint, Ryan said.
The department's new approach to food safety is still being developed, with regulations expected to be ready for public comment in December.
But these are some probable elements of the program:
Restaurants would be required to have a manager on site certified by a state-approved training program in food safety. The state may also require some training for other employees.
Restaurants would need to have written food safety procedures, such as hand washing requirements and food temperature requirements.
Restaurants would be required to inspect their own facilities periodically, using a checklist similar to those used by state inspectors. They'd look at food temperatures, cleanliness and so forth. The records would be maintained for future state audits.
How often state employees would do onsite inspections under the new program has not been determined yet.
The department also has not decided how often paper audits would be done.
The department expects to require some randomly selected businesses to submit their records each year as part of their annual permit renewal, Ryan said.
Under the new approach, a big chunk of the division's staff time would go toward training and helping restaurants develop their operating procedures, Ryan said.
But she said the department may be able to free up staff for food safety by shifting the burden for nonfood inspections, such as those at swimming pools and tattoo parlors, to other government agencies.
Trevor Hayes, executive secretary of the Conference for Food Protection, said the state's approach may work.
The conference is a national organization made up of regulators, academics, industry representatives and consumers that makes recommendations to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Hayes strongly supports requiring a manager certified in safe food handling to be on the premises at all times. A trained manager can ensure food safety on a daily basis, whereas a state inspector only stops in occasionally, he said.
But to be most effective, self-monitoring needs to be backed up by spot checks by government inspectors and serious consequences for restaurants that falsify reports, Hayes said.
"I think there needs to be a clear message to industry that self-audit doesn't mean they can get away with murder," Hayes said.