Have you been missing restaurant inspections? Thurston County has not posted any new inspections since mid-June. Here’s why.
Thurston County’s restaurant inspection reports have not been updated for two months due to limited staff being focused on different priorities, said Sammy Berg, Senior Environmental Health Specialist for the county.
Berg said there has been no change in how the county approaches inspections or updates its food safety website. The pause can instead be partly attributed to a reduction by half in staff capacity.
“Six staff, that’s what we’ve had for several years,” Berg said. “But beginning this year, we had two vacancies and one other staff that was reassigned. So basically, we have three inspectors to do the food work.”
Turnover, coupled with COVID-19 response activities, has been an ongoing challenge for PHSS, he said. However, some relief may be in sight.
Berg said he expects to add two new inspectors in September. Around that time, he said he expects to start posting new restaurant inspection notes to the county’s food safety website.
Other priorities also have contributed to the pause in updates. Berg said staff focus on inspecting temporary activities and schools during the summer.
“So that means there’s less time for them to do the other things and everything else kind of piles on,” Berg said. “We’re trying to do as much as we can with far fewer staff.”
On Wednesday, Berg said staff have so far completed 106 inspections of temporary food establishments. Additionally, he said staff are tasked with inspecting kitchens and campuses at 95 schools across the county during the spring and summer.
Notes from these activities do not get shared online, he added. When asked why, Berg said those notes may not be as useful to consumers.
“It’s all public record, but there just hasn’t necessarily been a lot of requests or need to find a good way to put that information out to folks,” Berg said.
School kitchen inspections tend to go very well because staff tend to be stable and well trained, he said. They also tend to do less complex food preparation, he added.
For temporary activities, Berg said staff often meet with vendors once or twice during the summer and correct any issues before they leave.
Many of these activities end by the time staff would have time to post inspection notes online, he said. This means consumers can’t use the information like they would with a typical restaurant.
“Is there a lot of value in the community for that?” Berg said. “I’m not sure. … We have no resistance to that.”
Food pop-ups, which temporarily sell food at existing locations, may spur changes to this policy.
Rather than operating once or a few times a season, pop-up vendors may choose to operate year-round on a published schedule. This blurs the line between temporary activities and permanent restaurants.
The county started officially allowing pop-up food vendors under a new permit policy in June. However, Berg said they are still evaluating this policy and it may change by the end of the year.
For now, inspection notes for pop-ups may not necessarily be shared on the county’s food safety website. Berg said the county will “certainly look” at including them.
“There is an ongoing potential for a customer to take a look at (pop-up vendor inspections) and make a choice about what they want to do and where they want to go,” Berg said.