County Health Services Director Mark Finucane promised a series of reforms Tuesday aimed at improving oversight of food safety procedures in Los Angeles restaurants, including mandatory training programs for food service workers.
Finucane's proposals--adopted unanimously by the Board of Supervisors--came in response to an undercover investigation by KCBS-TV Channel 2 that showed unsanitary kitchens in some well-known restaurants and employees mishandling food.
That investigation cited county records showing that some of the restaurants were allowed to stay open despite repeated violations while others have gone uninspected for as long as two years.
"Those numbers are not satisfactory to any of us," said Finucane, who added that he is considering raising the number of required annual inspections for the 20,000 restaurants in the county.
And while the Health Services director said he will investigate whether he needs additional inspectors, the supervisors chastised him for not spending $6 million of the $40 million budgeted last year for restaurant inspections.
"I think our public health program is taking a back seat to other health department priorities," Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky said in an interview after the meeting. "I think we have a problem; a management problem. It's not the money."
Finucane also told the board that he will try to shut down restaurants if serious violations are found on more than two successive surprise inspections, and that he will require that restaurants publicly post the results of their latest inspection.
He said he will create a 24-hour complaint hotline and post inspection results on the Internet. Also, when restaurants are closed due to health violations, they will be required to publicly post a sign stating the specific reasons for closure, Finucane said.
All five supervisors said Finucane's pledges were needed, but several called for far more aggressive actions, particularly more frequent inspections and more crackdowns on problem restaurants.
"We need to really get our game in order," said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich called for four annual inspections; the health department now conducts an average of 1.8 per restaurant each year.
Antonovich said some counties, such as San Diego, require four annual inspections and have far more aggressive programs than Los Angeles to monitor restaurants, school cafeterias and other food-serving facilities.
"It seems to me that one [annual inspection] is insufficient," he said. "We have seen how a restaurant can go from being completely rat-infested and filthy to being spotless overnight, and it could go the other way just as fast."
The board told Finucane to report back in two weeks on the feasibility of fining restaurants for failed inspections. And the supervisors ordered an audit of the health department's food inspection program to see why the money wasn't spent.
Gerald Breitbart, a consultant for the California Restaurant Assn., told the board that the Channel 2 report was unbalanced.
Breitbart acknowledged that more inspections are needed. But he opposed Finucane's call for restaurant employees to take mandatory food safety classes, saying such requirements are often ignored and ineffective.