The Department of Agriculture and Markets is not keeping up with the demands of its inspection schedule, allowing thousands of food manufacturers, supermarkets, bakeries and other food-related businesses to operate without updated inspections, according to an audit released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
The backlog has allowed hundreds of new establishments to start serving the public without the required initial inspection.
"Food safety is critical for the health and well-being of New Yorkers, but the Department of Agriculture and Markets is quickly falling behind in its responsibilities to make sure what the public is eating is safe," DiNapoli said. "The department needs to take immediate steps to maximize its resources and address the backlog of past-due inspections."
The department's division of food safety and inspection is responsible for inspecting more than 31,000 establishments, including food manufacturers, wholesale bakeries, beverage processors, food warehouses, refrigerated warehouses, retail food stores, slaughterhouses, fish processors, rendering/disposal plants and food transportation services. From April 1, 2011, through June 4, 2013, it received 5,724 consumer complaints for investigation, and inspectors obtained 3,894 food samples for testing to identify potential violations of food safety.
DiNapoli's auditors found that, as of June 4, inspections that were due for almost 5,000 establishments had not been completed. Another 439 new establishments did not yet have a required initial inspection completed prior to opening for business.
A random sample of 45 of the new establishments found license applications had languished for an average of six months. Nineteen of those businesses (42 percent) were already preparing food without the required inspection. They included fish markets, delis and convenience stores.
The food safety division's staff of 82 inspectors is as much as 37 percent below the level recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. To meet the requirements dictated by potential hazard ratings for existing establishments, inspectors would need to conduct 30,000 to 36,000 inspections annually, including re-inspections, or about 2.2 inspections per day by each inspector. However, between April 1, 2011, and June 4, 2013, inspectors completed an average of only 1.7 inspections per day each.
By adjusting schedules and work practices for greater efficiency, more time could be allocated to conducting inspections, auditors concluded, thereby bringing the division closer to meeting its targets.
Auditors found most consumer complaints are investigated timely, and confirmed the department's food sampling program is a nationally recognized leader in the field.
DiNapoli recommended the department:
•Establish performance measures for food inspection activities, including department-wide policy governing such things as work scheduling and time allowances for local travel.
•Establish procedures to further prioritize and ensure timely completion of inspections of new establishments.
•Increase efforts to provide coordinated real-time access to data among divisions and obtain training on how to use that data to monitor performance, including activities such as inspections and complaint response.
Department of Agriculture and Markets officials agreed with DiNapoli's recommendations and have taken some steps to implement them. For a copy of the report, visit: http://www.osc.state.ny.us/audits/allaudits/093014/13s27.pdf.