Kathleen McLaughlin
The Bulletin

When Oregon food safety inspector Jon Harrang showed up at Sparrow Bakery on Scott Street in Bend on Nov. 29, he was more than two years late to conduct a routine inspection, according to an Oregon Department of Agriculture database.

Harrang cited the wholesale bakery, which also has a deli counter, for handling food with bare hands and failing to keep items in the refrigerated display case below 41 degrees F. Co-owner Jessica Keating said those problems were corrected as soon as possible, and she actually wishes the state inspector would visit more often.

“We would be a cleaner, better bakery,” she said.

The inspection at Sparrow Bakery underscores a larger problem in Oregon.

Sparrow is one of 2,841 Oregon Department of Agriculture license holders that in October were at least 90 days overdue for a routine food safety inspection, according to an audit of the state Food Safety Program conducted by the Oregon Secretary of State audits division. Despite developing its own software to track and log inspections, the Food Safety Program has been overwhelmed by turnover and retirement of inspectors, plus a steady increase in the number of food-producing firms, which now exceed 12,000, according to the audit report.

While the Oregon Health Authority and county health departments oversee food safety at restaurants, the state Agriculture Department plays an equally large role in preventing the spread of foodborne pathogens.

The department inspects several types of wholesale and retail food businesses, including grocery stores, commercial bakeries and breweries, dairy and shellfish operations.

The Agriculture Department agreed with the audit findings and said it would evaluate its own data each month to try to eliminate the backlog.

Food Safety Program Director Stephanie Page said the department hired two temporary inspectors to help work through the backlog in Portland and the Coos Bay area and hopes to fill three permanent inspector roles, if the recruitment is permitted under Gov. Kate Brown’s budget, which calls for a 60-day hiring freeze.

Central Oregon received a second inspector in April 2015, so the backlog is smaller in this area than in Portland, Page said.

The hiring was prompted by an explosion of specialty food startups in the Bend area, Page said. “A lot of folks starting a new food business might ask for help from us,” she said.

The Central Oregon backlog includes one firm, Crystal Cascade Water Co., of Culver, which hasn’t seen a routine inspection since 2007. Twenty-six others haven’t had a routine inspection since 2013 or earlier, the department’s database shows. All of those operations are classified as low-risk or medium-risk. The risk level — low, medium or high — depends on several criteria, including past violation history and the type of food products handled.

Seven high-risk food businesses remain past due for inspection as of late November, according to the department. The Central Oregon inspectors have recently taken several high-risk firms, including Village Baker, Nourish Meal Prep and Cinder Butte Meat Co., off the backlog list.

Routine inspections are unannounced, and some operations are difficult to catch in action, Page said. Cinder Butte Meat Co., for example, has two mobile butchering units, which were inspected Nov. 17 after a four-month delay.

The inspectors cited Cinder Butte for failing to equip its mobile slaughterhouse with a sanitizing tank, which is directly linked to preventing foodborne illness. Owner Bob Mehan said Cinder Butte has been washing tools between jobs with scalding-hot water and a bucket full of sanitizer. He said he knew the sinks were required because he’s been cited for the same violation in the past. This time he said he plans to install them.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” he said. “We get those trailers in some really tough spots in ranches.”

Many firms the Agriculture Department inspects in Central Oregon are bakeries and breweries, which are low-risk because pathogens are cooked or eliminated by fermentation, Harrang said. But when the wholesale business adds a restaurant or starts selling deli salads and sandwiches, the risk classification rises, he said. “When people make those, there’s no kill step,” he said.

Juices, low-acid canning, raw meat and dairy products also have a higher risk of spreading disease, Harrang said.

The department is trying to eliminate the backlog of all high-risk establishments that are two years or more overdue for routine inspection, according to the audit report.

Companies pay state license fees that range from $108 to $1,624, depending on the type of license and annual gross sales. “They expect a service,” Page said. “If you talk to the food safety manager for the Safeways in the Northwest, he wants us there a lot,” she said. “We catch things early. We do a lot of on-site education of staff.”

The department has not raised license fees since 2009. While business owners might want to see inspectors more often, Page said inspectors have an even bigger workload in the future. The department is responsible for licensing edible marijuana producers, she said, and a new set of federal rules, the Food Safety Modernization Act, will be taking effect for smaller firms. Inspections could take twice as long as they do now under the new rules, she said.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture works in conjunction with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which inspects any business selling across state lines. Oregon’s 38 inspectors also conduct FDA inspections under contract, and the auditors found, Oregon conducts more contract inspections than any other state. While those contracts bring significant revenue to the department, they take three to four hours longer to complete than state inspections, according to the audit.

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com