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David’s Pizza got its name in the paper last month free of charge, but the publicity didn’t exactly draw in the hungry masses. The northeast Washington store was listed in the Washington Post’s weekly roundup of food establishments closed down for health-code violations, such as “unclean food” and “evidence of rodents.” Hasan Karimi, assistant manager of David’s, was philosophical about his restaurant’s turn in the spotlight, saying he has accepted that he had to close shop and spend $1,500 to fix up the place. (His pizza counter now has a no-leak ceiling and new flooring.) But Karimi says he shouldn’t be the only one to win the lottery, referring to a pizza joint down the street: “There are a lot of mouse there,” he says. “They can go and check.” Don’t hold your breath, Hasan. David’s was the sole restaurant closed down by D.C. food inspectors during the entire month of September.
In a six-week period beginning the last week of August, the city busted only three food establishments. Over the same time period last year, inspectors closed 14 places, according to Post reports. That means that in the past year, restaurant closings have plummeted by 79 percent.
“There’s something wrong there, especially given the nature of the places that used to be closed every week,” says John Briley, managing editor for Food Chemical News, a trade newsletter about federal food safety. “There’s no way D.C. restaurants have cleaned all the stuff up. You wouldn’t have to spend more than two hours inspecting restaurants in some neighborhoods to find violations,” Briley says. (Full disclosure: Briley has written for Washington City Paper.)
Either local restaurateurs have undergone a sudden, simultaneous makeover, or the watchdogs have lost their teeth. Sebrina McClendon is a clerk for the D.C. Council’s Committee of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). She confirms that DCRA food inspectors aren’t conducting the kind of oversight they used to over D.C.’s 5,000 restaurants and supermarkets. “All the inspections have dropped off. Things aren’t getting done,” McClendon says. “Unless you get serious complaints about something, it probably won’t get inspected.”
McClendon points to cuts in funding and personnel that have left most DCRA divisions, food inspection included, with skeleton staffs and measly budgets. Over the last eight years, she says, the department’s funding has been slashed by 35 percent, and 200 positions have been eliminated. And with the food division down to 10 inspectors, there’s “no way, no way possible” that they could regularly inspect all the District’s restaurants and supermarkets, McClendon says.
The 10 inspectors, or “sanitarians,” as they like to be called, also inspect other D.C. businesses, like beauty salons and swimming pools. An average inspection lasts four hours, McClendon estimates. “There are only 365 days in a year. Anybody can do the math. You can’t do it.”
“I’ll just say that whoever has been doing the budget, they have been doing that agency an injustice,” McClendon adds.
DCRA spokesperson Janet McCormick concedes that the food division is understaffed, but she says she’s confident that the “majority” of restaurants are still getting inspected once or twice a year. The department’s figures show 8,000 inspections occurring over the last two years. But McCormick admits that some could have been multiple visits to the same restaurant or responses to consumer complaints.
In Prince George’s County, roughly the same number of inspectors are responsible for examining half as many restaurants as D.C.’s crew, says Pat Sullivan, a spokesperson for the county’s health department. And she points out that those nine inspectors examine only the county’s 2,489 restaurantsnot other businesses.
The local Better Business Bureau says a dropoff of DCRA activity has trickled down, creating a “marked increase” in complaint calls. “When [residents] can’t get through to consumer affairs, they end up turning to us,” says bureau director Edward J. Johnson III.
Things have gotten so bad in terms of restaurant oversight that some in the department are even flirting with the idea of formally allowing restaurants to inspect themselves. Coming at a time when tainted hamburger and diseased fish are making headlines, the concept of the local food industry policing itself is enough to spoil your lunch.
Streetside food vendors are already left largely to their own devices. DCRA inspectors don’t even track vending cart inspections, nor do they send out notifications for license renewals. “If they don’t come in, they don’t get inspected,” one inspector says. Sgt. Zachery Scott of the Metropolitan Police Department’s vending unit says four officers regularly patrol District vending carts. They issue citations for any cart they find with an expired license, shutting it down until the vendor scoots off to DCRA for renewal.
The honor system may be seriously considered for all food establishments if budget cuts continue. Next year’s budget has funding for 10 sanitarians, McClendon says, but the food division will probably maintain only three or four to save on salaries.
Downsizing is nothing new to the DCRA food division, which has not filled a food inspector vacancy since 1991, McCormick says. About five or six inspectors have retired or resigned since that time, she says, and officials have “not given the authority” to rehire.
The “self-inspection” system isn’t a reality yet, but someday soon restaurant managers could “inspect themselves and then send us a copy of the report,” one inspector speculates. “There are a lot of restaurants that are really clean,” says McCormick. Of course, those aren’t the ones everyone is worried about.CP