The Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) Food Safety Program is struggling with a backlog of establishments needing inspection. This backlog was caused by an increase in the number of licensed businesses and complexity of business practices, and an inspection staff busy with other duties. By implementing stronger management practices, making better use of data, and more strategically deploying its resources, the program can reduce its backlog of inspections, better achieve its mission of preventing the spread of foodborne illness, and prepare for more regulatory challenges in the near future.
The Food Safety Program has an inspection backlog
According to ODA, a backlogged firm is one that is three or more months late for an inspection. We found that, as of October 2016, 2,841 firms were late for an inspection.
Inspectors have not kept up with this workload in part because the number of licensed businesses has been steadily increasing for the last 10 years. There are now more than 12,000 licensees needing regular inspection by the Food Safety Program.
Inspectors are also spending significant amounts of time on duties that are not related to inspections, such as attending training courses in specialized license types or answering licensee questions on the phone. Management has established goals for how much time inspectors should be spending on inspection-related tasks, but it is not clear these goals are being met.
Federal grants, contracts take time away from inspections
Many firms in Oregon are subject to inspection not only by ODA, but also by the federal Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. The Food Safety Program has a contract with FDA to conduct some of these inspections in exchange for reimbursement. Currently, ODA conducts 500 contract inspections each year, one of the highest contract workloads in the country. These inspections take significantly longer than a routine ODA inspection.
ODA’s Food Safety Program was one of the first in the country to enroll in the federal Manufactured Food Regulatory Program Standards, or MFRPS. Through MFRPS, the program has developed policies and procedures related to enforcement actions, responding to food-related illness, and training. This work has taken time away from conducting food safety inspections and was one of the factors contributing to the backlog.
Staff turnover is a challenge
Since 2006, 28 inspectors have either left the agency or retired. Retiring inspectors often take decades of expertise and experience with them. Hiring and training new staff to replace them is time-intensive. And there is no formal succession plan to prepare for their departure.
Turnover has been especially challenging for the program’s two field operations managers, who are responsible for supervising inspectors. ODA has struggled to keep people in these two positions.
The program uses a tool from FDA that allows food safety regulatory programs to calculate the number of inspectors required to manage the workload. But we found the Food Safety Program was incorrectly using this tool and may not have an accurate estimate of its own staffing needs.
The program needs more management oversight
More oversight of food safety inspectors is needed to ensure the quality and consistency of inspections. Field operations managers only review the inspection reports of new inspectors while they are trained. Although field operations managers are expected to supervise inspectors in the field, this is not happening because managers are busy with office work.
Management could offer more guidance to help inspectors be more consistent in their interactions with licensees. Currently, inspectors are inconsistent in how they issue enforcement actions and how much time they spend explaining the rules and regulations to food establishments.
The program is also at risk of overlooking some businesses that are operating without a license. Currently, ODA relies on new businesses to contact them to obtain a license. But for businesses that may not, there is no formal policy or procedure to proactively identify them.
The program could benefit from better use of data
We found the Food Safety Program is missing several opportunities to use data to help make decisions.
Although management can access the program’s Be Food Safe database to see how many firms are overdue for an inspection, they have not been consistently tracking and storing these data. Keeping track of these numbers could be helpful in identifying patterns and strategies to reduce the backlog.
Some data are not being kept in the most efficient form for analysis. Inspectors fill out daily paper reports of how they spend their hours, but management does not analyze these. By keeping these data in a digital format that can be easily accessed, and regularly analyzing them, management could identify how staff spend their time and look for opportunities for improvement.
We also found that the program could benefit from a designated data analysis position. Managers say they do not have time to collect and analyze data because of their other responsibilities. By having someone whose role is primarily data analysis, the program could benefit from this data without compromising these other duties.
To work toward the goal of reducing the backlog of inspections, we recommend ODA reconsider some of its workload, provide more guidance to inspectors, and better track and analyze data to inform these decisions. To help the program better achieve its mission, we recommend ODA develop policies and procedures to improve oversight of inspectors and develop partnerships with other agencies. And to address some of the staffing challenges, we recommend the program use data to analyze its staffing needs and develop a succession plan for retiring inspectors. Our specific recommendations can be found on page 22 of the report.
The full agency response can be found at the end of the report.