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House lawmaker reheats debate over state food inspectors

Posted: Thursday, May 09, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A House lawmaker is reheating the debate over the state's food inspection program, introducing a bill on Wednesday to eliminate the program.

The bill was filed by House Finance Co-Chairman Bill Williams, R-Saxman, who earlier this session gutted the agency's funding from the state's fiscal 2003 budget.

Williams is now proposing that the state Division of Environmental Health's food safety and sanitation program no longer oversee restaurants, school cafeterias and senior lunch programs along with frequent federal food recalls.

Williams said he is dissatisfied with the number of inspections performed by the agency now, adding ''I think their oversight, with the amount of money they have received for the last four years, is not doing the job.''

He contends some food establishments are inspected only once every 18 months.

Janice Adair, director of the Division of Environmental Health, called Williams' proposal ''mind boggling.'' Adair disputed his contention, adding that food establishments are inspected at least once every 12 months.

''If a restaurant is suspected of making people sick, we would have no authority to shut them down,'' Adair said.

The program is operated under the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which would still be responsible for overseeing the state's seafood industry.

The bill was filed on behalf of the House Finance Committee. It went before the Finance Committee on Wednesday and received a cool reception from a number of committee members.

Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, said it is irresponsible for lawmakers to push the measure through with just a week left in the session.

Williams' earlier proposal to eliminate funding to the agency sparked a loud outcry from the public during budget hearings this session. Ultimately, the Senate restored about $218,000 in state funding to the agency.

Williams has complained that restaurant inspections and other duties given to the food safety program should be taken on by local governments.

Anchorage is the only local community that currently performs its own food inspections at schools and restaurants.

''This is a local issue. Let the local people do it if they chose,'' Williams said Wednesday.

If approved, it would also end state oversight of grocery stores, food booths, day care centers, tattoo parlors and other public accommodations.

Adair said the state would also not be able to enforce frequent federal Food and Drug Administration recalls that are issued to states.

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-- The measure is House Bill 532.



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