Iowa to dramatically cut back on some restaurant inspections

Some ‘low risk’ eateries may be inspected every five years under new rule

By: - October 12, 2022 5:51 pm

Earlier this year, a food-safety inspector cited Des Moines’ Zora Bar Rooftop, located on Ingersoll Avenue, for 17 violations, such as a number of food items the inspector said were “covered with what appears to be mold.” (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals)

The state of Iowa is planning to dramatically scale back the routine inspection of some food-service establishments by making only one onsite inspection up to every five years.

Currently, many Iowa restaurants are subjected to at least one routine inspection every three years. They are also inspected in response to complaints or changes in ownership.

Complaint-driven inspections will continue, and restaurants will undergo an inspection prior to opening.

But in the absence of those issues or other risk factors, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals intends to visit some Iowa food establishments and restaurants as infrequently as every five years under a set of new rules that are expected to take effect next month.

On Monday, a DIA spokeswoman said the shift from one inspection every three years to one inspection every five years would affect all Iowa food establishments other than those deemed to be very low risk, where no routine inspections will occur.

On Wednesday, the department said the actual length of time between inspections will be based on a risk assessment of each type of establishment, with the maximum gap between inspections being extended to five years.

The department provided the Iowa Capital Dispatch with a risk assessment protocol that details the inspection cycle for routine visits to various types of food establishments and restaurants.

For example:

Risk Level 1 (very low risk): No routine inspections. Businesses will be inspected on a complaint-only basis after opening. Examples: Aldi, Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar.

Risk Level 2 (low risk): Inspected every five years, although inspectors can increase the number of visits if deemed necessary. These are sandwich shops that don’t cook, snack bars, convenience stores and pizzerias that use pre-cooked ingredients. Examples: Subway, Costco, Cinnabon, Dunkin’ Donuts, Domino’s, Firehoude Subs, Five Guys, Jimmy John’s and Papa Murphy’s.

Risk Level 3 (medium risk): Inspected every three years, or more often if deemed necessary. This would include fast-food restaurants and pizzerias with salad bars and buffets. Examples: Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, McDonald’s, Fareway and Panera.

Risk Level 4 (high risk): Inspected annually, or every six months if deemed necessary. This would include mobile food trucks, buffet restaurants, production cafeterias and operations that provide regular catering service. Examples: Cracker Barrel, Jethro’s BBQ, Red Lobster and Kwik Star stores that cook chicken.

Risk Level 5 (very high risk): These would be inspected every six months, or every four months if necessary. This would include restaurants that have Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plans, which are typically required of stores and restaurants that serve sushi. Examples: Hy-Vee Sushi, Fujisan Sushi.

Mitzi Baum, CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness. (Photo courtesy of the organization.)

Mitzi Baum, CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness, said a three-year inspection cycle “is inadequate, let alone five years.”

She said 1 in 6 Americans – or 48 million people – are sickened each year by a food-borne illness. About 128,000 of those people will be hospitalized, she said, and an estimated 3,000 people will die.

Jessica Dunker of the Iowa Restaurant Association pointed out that Iowa law requires every restaurant to have a certified food protection manager on staff, which provides for a form of self-policing.

She acknowledged that DIA regularly cites restaurants for violating that law, but said she’s seeing more and more eateries embrace the concept of having one such person working every shift.

Jessica Dunker of the Iowa Restaurant Association. (Photo courtesy of the organization.)

The proposed change comes in the wake of DIA’s recent acknowledgement that for the past eight years, it has inspected Iowa’s 700 hotels and motels only on a complaint basis. That is despite a longstanding state law that requires such businesses to be inspected at least once every two years.

Like the hotel inspections, DIA contracts with a dozen or so cities and counties to conduct inspections at restaurants in their jurisdiction. Those cities and counties will be free to either adopt DIA’s schedule of inspections or conduct more frequent visits.

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Other states inspect more frequently

Iowa’s proposed inspection cycle for some food establishments would result in significantly longer gaps between inspections as compared to other states.

South Dakota, for example, inspects all food establishments at least twice each year.

In Nebraska, high-risk food establishment are inspected twice per year, with medium-risk operators inspected once each year. The low-risk establishments are inspected every 18 months.

In Illinois, high-risk establishments are inspected three times per year, with medium-risk restaurants inspected once per year. The low-risk businesses are inspected once every two years.

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In Minnesota, restaurants and stores that prepare sushi are inspected every nine months. Gift shops that sell only prepackaged snacks are inspected every 42 months.

Baum said Iowa’s proposed change is curious since it appears that in 2021, DIA updated its food code by adopting the 2017 version of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s recommended standards. The FDA standards state that restaurant inspections should take place at least every six months – with exceptions made for establishments operating under approved hazard-analysis plans.

Larry Johnson, director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals. (Photo by Caroline Wright, Accura HealthCare of Stanton)

DIA has responded to some questions in writing but has repeatedly declined to make anyone on staff available for an interview.

Dunker has said Iowa’s restaurants and hotels appreciate DIA’s approach to regulation and oversight, adding that regulators in other states take a more aggressive approach.

“What I like, and what the industry likes, about the Department of Inspections and Appeals in Iowa is that it’s not a ‘gotcha’ agency,” Dunker said. “To be honest, that is something that as an industry we have appreciated … We really consider them partners.”

Baum, the CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness, says there’s nothing wrong with inspectors avoiding a ‘gotcha’ mentality and being a partner with the businesses they regulate – as long as their goal is protecting consumers.

“Working in partnership is positive,” she said, “but working in partnership to reduce food safety is not working in partnership with the public. It leaves them at risk.”

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In recent years, several states around the nation have increased their oversight of restaurants in response to growing public awareness of violations and food-safety issues.

In New Mexico, for example, the state’s restaurant association historically opposed mandates for food-safety training of restaurant workers. But in 2016, it came out in support of such measures, citing negative publicity and a “huge surge in media coverage” of inspectors’ findings, which many states were posting online.

“We believe we must protect restaurants by advocating for, and providing, education that keeps restaurants off the front page of the paper,” the association said at the time.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that many food businesses will be inspected more frequently than every five years based on a risk assessment by the Department of Inspections and Appeals. Sushi restaurants, for example, are considered very high risk and would be inspected every four to six months. Businesses considered very low risk would not have routine inspections after opening.

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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.

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