- Associated Press - Friday, September 25, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - A state audit shows New Hampshire’s food protection program is mired in inefficiencies that are preventing the timely inspection of establishments that sell, package and handle food.

State auditors presented the findings Friday to a legislative committee, and lawmakers strongly urged health officials to address the problems quickly. The report says the state has a “fractured food safety network” and that inefficiencies in the system cost the state about 600 inspections within one year and a net loss of more than $1 million. It found that more than 400 high-risk food establishments were not inspected within a two-year period.

“The public absolutely expects to be able to eat safely in a restaurant or a health care facility,” Democratic Rep. Cindy Rosenwald said.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas said he takes the report seriously and is working to address the issues. Last year’s capital budget included money to create a food protection database which is not yet up and running. Auditors said the lack of food protection data from the department weakened their ability to fully assess the program. Toumpas also said the program is understaffed. He will provide quarterly reports to lawmakers detailing the department’s response to the audit.

The state’s food protection program inspects and licenses establishments, samples food, reviews construction and renovations for food establishments, investigates complaints and pursues sanctions, educates the public on food safety and oversees recalls. A number of other state departments regulate aspects of the food system such as the water supply and agricultural operations. A total of 16 municipalities operate their own food protection and licensing programs, and the audit found the state has no comprehensive way of monitoring those inspection programs.

The state has more than 5,300 licensed food establishments. The audit found that, on average, establishments hadn’t been inspected in 472 days. One went uninspected for nearly 15 years. Of the 474 highest-risk establishments, nearly 18 percent were not inspected within two years.

The audit does not mention specific restaurants or food producers. Republican Rep. Neal Kurk said the public should expect the food they consume is “absolutely safe.”

“I don’t want that expectation to be upset in New Hampshire,” he said.

Lawmakers may introduce legislation in the next year aimed at streamlining the regulations and rules around food safety, which the audit found are confusing and sometimes contradictory.

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