Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Lawmakers Tackle Food Safety Funding; Inspector Numbers Fall Behind Growth

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Lawmakers Tackle Food Safety Funding; Inspector Numbers Fall Behind Growth

Article excerpt

Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING, Capital Bureau Chief

TALLAHASSEE -- State legislators Wednesday began considering whether Florida can afford to continue inspecting retail food -- and if so, how to pay for it.

A report to the Senate Agriculture Committee laid out a distressing situation in the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. A decade ago the department had a staff of 81 inspectors covering 20,000 grocery stores, processing plants and distribution centers -- about one inspector for every 247 sites. Today, there are 122 inspectors for 46,264 sites, or one inspector for every 379 stores, plants or centers.

The program needs at least $2.3 million to continue checking sanitation conditions. At issue is whether to provide that from the state's general revenue fund or let the retail food industry inspect itself -- in an age of bioterrorism threats.

General revenue money has been steadily phased out of the program over the past 11 years, but senators acknowledged it may be time to reverse that funding flow.

"It comes down to me that the department needs money to run the program, and it seems that money has been stopped from general revenue," said Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, the committee's chairwoman. "If the state wants to have public safety of food for its citizens, then we ought to be putting our money where our mouth is."

The department's program now relies wholly on permit fees and fines from the industry it regulates, with fees ranging from $75 for small businesses that sell limited, prepackaged food, such as video or liquor stores, to $500 for larger retail food outlets. Those fees have climbed as general revenue funds have fallen, yet fee revenue also became insufficient this year and forced the department to use an in-house trust fund to keep the inspection program afloat.

Argenziano said putting general revenue back into the program could actually help the industry by lowering the possibility of more fee increases and making the state share the program's cost. …

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