The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will ask the legislature for 134 new food safety inspector positions for next year, as it struggles to overcome a backlog of up to two years in inspecting food establishments.
The move comes after the newly elected commissioner Nikki Fried found only about 80 inspectors are on staff to inspect approximately 40,000 supermarkets, meat markets, convenience stores and other food establishments.
That 500-1 ratio of establishments to inspectors means some places go years between inspection.
"That is unacceptable," said Dr. Bindu Mayi, professor of microbiology at Nova Southeastern University, adding it was especially harmful to efforts to detect the food-borne bacterium listeria.
"It can kill," Dr. Mayi said of the bug, noting it can cause stillbirths in pregnant women and be fatal to the very young, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.
The NBC 6 Investigators found the department, under Fried's predecessors, failed to inspect one Hollywood Asian produce facility for more than six years.
When one of the department's biological scientists checked the location last week, the agency shut down the company's sprout processing area, citing soil, live flies, a dead cockroach and no record of testing for food-borne bacteria, according to a department's inspection report.
The agency also ordered the firm, which it said is owned by Lo & Lee Inc. and doing business as Asia Produce, to stop selling its sprouts and stop using equipment in its sprout processing area until tests show it has tested negative for listeria.
The state has no record that listeria, E.coli, salmonella or other dangerous pathogens are present in the company's building, but said it issued the stop-sale and stop-use orders primarily because there was no record showing water used to irrigate the sprouts had been tested for the bacteria.
The report says the orders will be lifted when tests are received showing listeria is not present.
Jack Lo, a director of the company, told NBC 6 the sprout processing area equipment is very old and the company is complying with the state's order, but he expects the tests for listeria to come back negative.
Listeria is the same bug whose presence forced the closure of Penn Dutch food center stores in Margate and Hollywood in September, just blocks away from Asia Produce. The owner has announced he will liquidate both stores, ending the company's four-decade long presence in Broward. Penn Dutch's owner didn't respond to a voicemail seeking comment.
According to federal records, listeria is responsible for more food recalls nationwide in the last month than other bacteria combined.
The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services wants an additional $5.1 million in the 2020-21 budget for the 134 new food safety inspectors.
"This level of inspector personnel would allow us to return back to an annual inspection basis for all food establishments, instead of the current risk-based basis to which the previous administration shifted," said Franco Ripple, the department's communications director. He said Commissioner Fried "has requested this major increase in food safety inspectors because she believes annual inspections will ensure safer food for Florida's families."
The agency currently has 70 food inspectors and nine dairy inspectors on the job (13 other positions are vacant).
"The prior administration's lapse of inspection is exactly why Commissioner Fried has called for an additional 134 inspectors," Ripple said.
The agency has been trying to clear up a one to two-year backlog left by the prior administration, he added.
The agency does not inspect restaurants but rather: supermarkets and grocery stores, convenience stores, coffee shops, bakeries, retail meat and seafood markets, juice and smoothie bars, and food processing plants and warehouses.
As the state struggles to inspect establishments more often, Dr. Mayi stressed "inspections are so important." She says waiting more than a year is risky because "anything and everything" could be growing during that time.
Dr. Mayi says consumers can lower their risk by taking some common sense tips around food:
• Wash your hands for 20 seconds before and after handling food
• Keep produce separate from raw meat
• Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold
• Wash produce before consuming
• Cook food thoroughly.
For more information on food safety, you can visit this site at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.