A Recipe For Safer Eating

Lawmakers want government-run restaurants to undergo health inspections.

Two Portland legislators say they want to close the loophole in state law that allows government-run restaurants to escape health inspections.

The proposal comes after 135 people got sick from eating food prepared by Oregon Zoo restaurants in December.

State health investigators say zoo patrons were exposed to a norovirus, which is passed along from feces or vomit, often when someone handling food fails to wash his or her hands.

As WW first reported, zoo restaurants haven't had a county health inspection since 2006. 

"Food services, whoever runs them, should be inspected," state Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland), chairman of the House Health Care Committee, tells WW. "That seems to me to make a lot of sense."

Zoo officials have said there is no proof regular inspections would have prevented the norovirus outbreak, and that a subsequent state review found no glaring problems at zoo restaurants.

But county officials told WW that the zoo has in the past turned down offers of voluntary inspections, something zoo officials have denied. The zoo's restaurants have since agreed to regular advisory inspections by the county.

State law requires any "person"—including individuals and businesses—running a restaurant to hold a license and undergo health inspections twice a year. Counties carry out the inspections.

State officials at the Oregon Health Authority, operating on advice from the attorney general, had earlier told county officials the zoo's restaurants didn't need to be licensed or inspected because the zoo is run by a government agency, Metro.

Since the norovirus outbreak, records obtained by WW show, Multnomah County officials have pressed the state about changing the way the law is interpreted.

The Oregon Health Authority has not taken a formal position. But emails show one top official, Jean O'Connor, the agency's deputy director of public health, believes the exemption for government-run restaurants lacks a rationale.

"I don't see the public health logic to this interpretation and never have," Lila Wickham, director of Multnomah County Environmental Health, wrote in an email exchange with O'Connor on Dec. 20, 2012, two weeks after the outbreak.

The state's position, Wickham added, "does not make sense from a public health perspective."

O'Connor said she agreed. "I concur with your thoughts about the rationale or lack thereof," she wrote Wickham in reply.

In an interview with WW, O'Connor stopped short of calling for ending the exemption.

"We do think the policy question needs some follow up," O'Connor says. "The public has a general expectation that, when they consume food in a public place, the restaurant or establishment is inspected."

In her Dec. 20 email, Wickham cited other exempt food facilities. "We also do not inspect the Multnomah Athletic Club because it is private, although we all know they have many many catered events where food is served to the public, not just members," Wickham wrote.

County officials say they will be asking other exempt food facilities to agree to voluntary health inspections. 

"When it comes to Oregon state rules and their interpretation, the counties take direction from the state," Wickham said in a statement to WW. "Each county does not make up its own rules."

State Sen. Chip Shields (D-Portland), who serves on the Senate Health Care and Human Services Committee, also want to change the law. 

“If any entity should have frequent inspections,” Shields says, “it should be government-run entities.” 

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