Alaskans out for a night on the town, students in a school lunch line, even shoppers at the corner grocery could soon be playing a kind of Russian roulette with their health if proposed funding cuts to the state's food safety program go into effect, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation warned last week.
In its version of the 2003 state operating budget, the Alaska House of Representatives proposed shutting down the Division of Environmental Health's Food Safety and Sanitation Program and turning that function over to local communities.
While the division would continue inspecting food-processing plants, such as canneries, gone would be state oversight of commercially available food at restaurants, grocery stores, food booths and school kitchens, as well as safety inspections at daycare centers, tattoo parlors and other public accommodations. In all, nearly 9,000 businesses would be affected, roughly half food-service establishments, the others all public facilities such as daycare centers, pools and spas, according to DEC.
The House cuts to the DEC come atop eight years of general fund budget reductions that have shaved the department's appropriations by well over 50 percent. Things have gotten pretty lean, according to DEC Commissioner Michele Brown.
She said Wednesday that the inspections are public health functions people cannot be expected to perform for themselves. Few have the expertise or, for that matter, the liberty to inspect a restaurant kitchen before buying a dinner.
And few communities across Alaska can afford to take on such a critical public service.
"It's about as fundamental a government role as I can think of," Brown said. "I can't fathom how we can yank that out from under our citizens and visitors."
In budget terms, it won't save much, she said. Of the program's $1.47 million annual budget, $1.26 million -- 85 percent -- is covered by yearly permit fees paid for by food establishments.
"Certainly, it is a very concerning thing that's happening," said Sen. Donald Olson, D-Nome, a member of the Senate Finance Committee's Subcommittee on Environmental Conservation. "We are looking at that with some pretty scanting eyesight."
At least some of the reductions proposed by the House will be reinstated, he predicted. For now, they are pawns. It's all part of the "gamesmanship that happens at the end (of the legislative session)," he said.
Subcommittee members were seeking creative ways early last week to ensure the program's survival. Subcommittee member Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, said the group put back some funding and began looking at $656,000 in federal homeland security funds (appropriated so the state could assess the vulnerability of its public water systems to terrorist attack) to see if it could be used to free up other general fund dollars that then could be shifted to the food safety program.
It soon became apparent, however, that the idea wouldn't fly.
"The theory was that money would go into drinking water and the drinking water money would go into food. It didn't compute," Brown said.
Sen. Loren Leman, R-Anchorage and candidate for lieutenant governor, chairs the subcommittee. He was in transit to Anchorage and was unavailable for comment late Friday, but an office aide confirmed the attempt to use the federal funds.
It was Leman's intention to find sufficient funding to cover the program, though not at 100 percent, according to Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Nikiski and Senate Finance Committee member. He said Friday that the program might be funded at around 70 percent of last year's level.
"Leman decided this was not something that should be 100 percent reduced," Ward said, adding that Leman didn't disagree with the premise that local communities should take over food safety programs. He did, however, want to provide "a soft landing" by not cutting all the funding at once, Ward said.
Other ideas for finding funding for the program are floating, according to Olson. Money might be transferred to food-service inspections from DEC programs that could be picked up by the federal government, he said.
Brown agreed that if programs have to be cut, it would be better to eliminate functions the feds can perform. For instance, the federal Environmental Protection Agency could oversee air and water quality or oil industry safety programs. That would be preferable to shifting a critical public health matter like food service inspections onto local municipal governments and villages that may be wholly unprepared to handle them, she said.
"We wouldn't like how the EPA would run (them), nor do we think it is proper to turn them over, but at least they would be looked at," she said.
There are costs attached to taking that kind of step, however. Brown said the EPA has the power to threaten loss of federal highway funds should the state fail to maintain an air-quality program.
Rodriguez and Tufto discuss restaurant operations in the dining room at the start of the routine inspection.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"If we turned state drinking water inspections over to the feds, they could take away funds we use to build water systems," she added.
Thus, shifting funds from those programs into food inspections could be a complicated matter, she said.
Rep. Bill Williams, R-Saxman, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, pushed the move to transfer food inspection responsibilities from the state to local municipalities and spoke against attempts to replace the money back while the issue was still in a House subcommittee. Williams was not available for comment Friday.
Brown doesn't fault Williams for eliminating a whole program. That, essentially, was what the DEC has been asking lawmakers to do for some time, on the theory that losing a single program would be better than "death by a thousand cuts" in a host of DEC functions.
Unfortunately, from Brown's perspective, exactly the wrong program was tagged for reductions.
"Williams did what we asked -- took a whole program. But we don't agree with how he did it," she said.
Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage and a critic of the DEC reductions, agreed that eliminating one program is better than handing department administrators a percentage cut and then blaming them for how those cuts are distributed.
"Unallocated cuts are a really chicken way to cut the budget," he said.
If the state no longer ensures that restaurants, hospitals and schools are serving uncontaminated food to customers, patients and students, local communities will have to perform that function. Beyond the question of whether every community could even afford to pay for a food-inspection program, who would see to it that community-run programs met at least some minimum standard?
"That's the heart of the issue," said Janice Adair, director of the Division of Environmental Health.
Most boroughs and larger cities probably have the wherewithal to engage in food inspections and enforcement. In fact, Anchorage already does, and with regulations stricter than those of the state, Adair said. But Anchorage is the only one.
Other municipalities and villages may lack the legal power to launch food inspections programs. A public vote would be required to alter their charters, she said.
"Our staff will all be gone," Adair lamented. "No one will be here to help them put an inspection program together."
If the state steps out of the food inspection program, people will get sick, she said.
"I think it's inevitable."
It has been suggested that restaurants hire private licensed food inspectors. There is no such thing in Alaska, and Adair couldn't find any such programs Outside, either, she said.
"There are quality standards," Adair said, "but the liability (of running a program) is so great, it keeps private industries from forming (to do that job)."
"The reason why is that from time immemorial this has been a government function," Brown said.
The proposed House cuts also would eliminate that part of the division that reacts to such things as Food and Drug Administration food recalls. Brown said such recalls occur on average about once a day in the nation.
They often aren't news in Alaska only because the state is on the end of the transportation chain and recalled products are most often returned to the manufacturer long before they hit local shelves. Brown said, however, that the state issues notices here when it remains possible that such products could be on people's pantry shelves.
That protection could be gone, she warned.
"We would have nothing," she said. "It's an elimination, not just a reduction."
The proposed cuts threaten federal dollars and pose complications for other state agencies, Brown said.
The state could lose around $27 million it gets from the federal government as reimbursement for school lunch, breakfast and child-care meal programs, or the $5 million in federal funds aimed at programs for seniors through the Older Americans Act. Those grants require state inspections by an agency with food-safety jurisdiction, in this case, the DEC, Brown said.
In addition, the Division of Occupational Licensing requires health and safety inspections for such businesses as tattoo parlors, body-piercing salons and the like. If the DEC can no longer perform those inspections, the licensing division could be put in the untenable position of delaying or denying licenses to legitimate businesses, or granting them without inspections, Brown said.
In Croft's opinion, the cuts to DEC make no sense. A government function as critical as food inspections is a sign of a civilized society, he said.
He decried Republican cuts beyond the food service issue, including those to parks and the state ferry system, all critical to tourists. He said visiting Alaska would be like coming "to a third world county without having to change your money."
"If not for the health and welfare of our own citizens, then at least do it for the potentially disastrous effects on our tourism industry. One major outbreak could damage tourism as much as Sept. 11," he said.
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