Editorials

Thanks to food inspectors, outbreaks are rare

A sign posted at Capt. Al’s Steak & Shrimp in Gulfport on Wednesday says it is closed for remodeling.
A sign posted at Capt. Al’s Steak & Shrimp in Gulfport on Wednesday says it is closed for remodeling. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

The state Health Department and especially its food inspectors have our gratitude and deserve the dining public’s thanks as well.

They are our best line of defense against food-poisoning outbreaks such as the one that closed Captain Al’s in Gulfport last week.

It’s not an easy job. Like most state agencies, it could use more money. This year alone, the agency had to cut 20 positions from its Office of Environmental Health.

South Mississippi lost two positions, leaving it with 19 food inspectors for the 24 southernmost counties.

In just part of that area, the 13 counties that make up the Fourth Congressional District have 1,154 restaurants. The department also is responsible for inspecting cafeterias in hospitals and schools, and foods prepared by the cottage food industry.

They are stretched thin. Melissa Parker, deputy director for the office, said in May the cuts would mean fewer inspections — as few as one a year for restaurants with the best track records. Captain Al’s had problems in the past. It has received Cs, the lowest grade, seven times since 2010.

Its latest C came Jan. 4 after the outbreak, when inspectors found a danger of contamination because food wasn’t separated and protected. Cross-contamination is one of the ways E. coli, the bacterium suspected in the outbreak, spreads. The restaurant had six A’s and a B in the previous seven inspections. It was inspected twice in 2016.

We believe the overwhelming majority of our restaurants do their best to prevent outbreaks. Mistakes happen, though, and that’s why we need inspectors.

We understand inspectors might not be the most popular people to cross the threshold of a restaurant. But they give out far more A’s than Cs.

In the past week, only six restaurants got the failing grade. They will be reinspected quickly, usually within 48 hours, the office said, to make sure they have returned to compliance.

We hope the department and state can find more money this year for the Office of Environmental Health. Food-poisoning outbreaks are bad for business and bad for tourism, the lifeblood of the Coast. Any money spent to prevent outbreaks is a wise investment.

In the meantime, diners can help the food inspectors. If you see any restaurant practices that worry you, contact the nearest environmental office. In South Mississippi, the number is 601-583-0291. You can also register a complaint online at msdh.ms.gov.

The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.

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