The state should get its fingers out of food inspections. At least that's what the owners of a popular local sandwich shop say. They say they're more than happy to see the Legislature debating whether to cut food inspections from the Department of Environmental Conservation's budget.
"Really, it should be in the private sector. I think that's where it should go. The government should not have anything to do with it," said Kathy Musick, who, along with Chris Fallon, owns Jersey Subs in Soldotna.
DEC health inspector Brad Tufto disagrees. He thinks the inspections play a vital role in keeping the public safe.
"Public safety is in jeopardy. We do a lot more than food inspections. We cover a lot of safety issues," Tufto said Thursday, adding that his department also inspects school cafeterias, photo labs and auto shops, senior centers, tattoo and piercing parlors, oil platforms, construction sites and even residential assisted-living facilities for potential hazards.
"All public accommodations, basically," he said.
Tufto said he hopes the Legislature finds a way to fund his department, but he isn't hopeful.
"My understanding is that they're shutting us down. We have three very talented inspectors here. All of us have families. I'm probably gonna be gone," Tufto said.
If the Legislature does indeed cut the DEC's budget, Tufto said, two of the three environmental health officers in the Soldotna office will be out of a job.
That's just too bad, say Musick and Fallon. They claim they've gotten little cooperation from the DEC during the three years they've been in business at their Soldotna location, and they cite Tufto, in particular, as being especially problematic.
Musick related her first encounter with the DEC inspector at the Ninilchik State Fair a couple of years ago.
"We have a little bus that we take down there and do the fair. (Tufto) comes up and, without identifying himself, starts taking off a backpack and taking out some of his stuff. I said, 'Who the hell are you?' He said, 'I'm your worst nightmare. I'm the DEC.'"
Musick believes such intimidation tactics have no place in ensuring the health and safety of customers.
She thinks having the government involved opens the system up to such abuses of power. It's not that she has a problem with health inspectors, she says, just the state's handling of the system. In fact, Musick said when a different DEC inspector, Jeri Lohmer, came around, she was very helpful.
"Jeri was just a dream to work with," Musick said.
However, that doesn't change her belief that health inspections should be out of the state's control.
"They should be cut. Unfortunately, the good ones are losing their jobs, too," Musick said.
She says she'd rather see private food inspectors who are more accountable for their actions. She says under the current system, there is no way for anyone to challenge the authority of the DEC. She says when she tried to bring her concerns about Tufto to his superiors, she got nowhere.
"I did not know how far-reaching the DEC was. It doesn't matter what you say. We even went over there and talked to (DEC Commissioner) Michelle Brown. She said, 'this comes as a total surprise to me.' They couldn't have cared less," Musick said.
Fallon, her partner, agrees that it's time for the state to get out of the inspection business.
"It's gotta be for the best. It can't get any worse," he said.
However, Tufto said he doesn't understand why anyone would even want to think about cutting his division. He said he believes there are significant public safety concerns that only the state can address.
"School safety will be an issue. We're an independent agency looking for hazards with students. (The Legislature's) expectation is the borough or local governments will take over. Does that include all the things we do? I don't know," he said.
"It's truly beyond me," why the Legislature would want to cut his department, Tufto said.
But Kathy Musick thinks she knows why the Environmental Health budget is slated to be cut.
"They didn't try to work with us. They just tried to bully us around," Musick said. "I'll be happy to see them go."
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