Iowans return to restaurants, but state inspectors keep their distance

By: - June 16, 2020 4:17 pm

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals is responsible for inspecting some of Iowa’s food establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants and convenience stores, as well as food processing plants, hotels and motels. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowans are now free to visit their favorite restaurants, but some of the state’s own food-safety inspectors are continuing to keep their distance.

At least 20% of the food-establishment inspections over the past three months have been conducted by the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals using only “virtual” technology, with no inspector setting foot inside the business to measure the temperature of food, gauge the overall cleanliness or look for signs of rodents.

DIA says it plans to resume traditional, on-site inspections at restaurants and other food establishments sometime in July.

On March 20, 2020, DIA suspended most routine inspections of hotels, home bakeries, and food establishments, following Gov. Kim Reynolds’ issuance of a State of Public Health Disaster Emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 15, Reynolds allowed restaurants to reopen, but with some restrictions still in place, such as operating at no more than 50% of capacity. On June 12, the 50% cap was lifted but social distancing requirements remain in effect.

For the most part, DIA has limited its food-safety inspections to those related to complaints, followups from previous inspections that uncovered violations, and pre-opening inspections for new businesses.

Many of those inspections have been conducted on a “virtual” basis, with inspectors relying on mobile audio and video technology that, at least in theory, allows them to assess equipment, food-handling practices and the businesses’ physical environment, all at a pre-arranged time.

For businesses that have been unable to participate in these virtual inspections, the food-safety inspectors have used a “no-contact inspection protocol” developed by the department.

According to the DIA website, the agency has conducted 168 food-establishment inspections since April 1. Violations were cited at 18 of the businesses, which means inspectors uncovered no violations of any kind at 89% of the establishments that were inspected.

In some of the final reports, inspectors wrote that they performed their work through Google Hangout, photos taken by the businesses, and telephone conversations with the proprietors, to gauge compliance. Some of the reports also include the disclaimer that due to the technological limitations of these tools, not all of the findings “may fully reflect what was assessed or observed” or even be “applicable to this inspection.”

However, it’s not clear how many of the state’s food inspections have been performed using only virtual technology.

DIA spokeswoman Stefanie Bond says the agency has performed a total of 488 food-establishment inspections since March 20 — that’s 320 more than what’s listed on DIA’s own website — and 97 of those, or 20%, were virtual inspections, with the rest conducted by inspectors who were on site.

Bond says the agency’s website excludes the results of virtual inspections, although it’s clear the site does include at least some of those inspections. And even if all of them had been deliberately excluded from the site, it wouldn’t explain why the results of more than 200 on-site inspections are also missing from the site.

Apart from the formalized inspection process, DIA recently began offering “virtual food-safety checks,” with no threat of regulatory action, to restaurants, grocery stores, bars and other food businesses that are reopening after being ordered closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food establishments in the 63 counties where DIA licenses and inspects such businesses can go online now and complete a form to request a voluntary food-safety check.

The checks do not take the place of required, regular inspections or those made in response to a complaint and are to be made using mobile audio and video technology. “These virtual checks will provide food establishment operators with the opportunity to discuss food safety practices with DIA’s trained food-safety specialists,” said DIA Director Larry Johnson, Jr.

DIA Food and Consumer Safety Bureau staff are responsible for administering and enforcing the Iowa Food Code by conducting food safety inspections at food establishments (grocery stores, restaurants, and convenience stores) and food processing plants. The purpose of the Iowa Food Code is to “safeguard the public health and provide to consumers, food that is safe, unadulterated, and honestly presented.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.