Sanitarians feel ‘lot of pressure’ with shortage of food inspectors

There are currently 1,772 registered food establishments in Maui County, not counting temporary vendors that sell food on weekends or at special events, and only three sanitarians, or food safety inspection officers, making sure that the food served is up to par.

“We are short-staffed,” Patti Kitkowski, program chief of the Maui District Health Office, told The Maui News. “My staff has a lot of pressure, I have to remind them (sanitarians) to just do what they can day to day.”

Most of the food establishments are on Maui, with only about 100 eateries on Molokai and Lanai combined, Kitkowski said. There are two sanitarians stationed on Maui and one on Molokai, with a separate food and drug inspector in charge of covering all three islands. Over the last three years, two more inspectors were brought in from the Mainland, though they left the island after short stints due to the “high cost of living and low pay,” said Kitkowski, who has been with the branch for 23 years.

On Maui, two sanitarians are in charge of conducting routine inspections on nearly 1,700 food establishments. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends one inspector assigned for every 150 eateries, which means Maui alone would need about 11 sanitarians on staff to comply with FDA standards.

It may not come as a surprise then that the staff shortage has caused a backlog in inspection schedules. While the FDA recommends that high-risk establishments be checked every four to six months, on Maui it may take up to two years between inspections, Kitkowski said.

“We are also dealing with a lot of illegal vendors, and we cannot be there 24 hours a day,” Kitkowski said. “Lots of things happen at night or over the weekend. We hope the public will help by calling it in. . . . If someone comes to your door to sell laulau, the first thing you should ask is about the permit.”

The most common violations are lack of hand-washing, poor temperature controls, cross-contamination by raw or uncooked foods and vermin, Kitkowski said.

But for food truck owner and operator Leslie Kalama, “As long as you comply with the rules, everything works out for both sides.”

Kalama, who has been in the food industry on Maui for more than 37 years, started her food truck business, Kalama Local Grinds Fresh Fish & Lunch to Go, two years ago. In that time, she said she has been visited by sanitarians 12 times but has never received a violation. Kalama said that she is not sure why they visited her truck so often, but said one inspector, who is no longer working for the branch, used to inspect the food trucks along Kahului Beach Road nearly every week.

Kalama said even though food safety regulations may add a few extra steps to her day-to-day routine, it is worth the effort. She makes sure all the “cold prep,” like cutting raw meat and handling fish, is done in a certified kitchen beforehand – in her case, JB’s Kitchen in Wailuku. She also makes sure she complies with regulations that require her to attach the generator and any outdoor tables to the truck.

“For a lot of people, this is our livelihood, our money. You don’t want people to get sick,” Kalama said. “I’m careful because if they get sick, we get shut down. Then what?”

Kitkowski said that the majority of the inspections are “spot checks,” when sanitarians visit restaurants, food trucks, grocery stores and other eateries without scheduling the inspection beforehand. They also inspect First, Second, Third and Fourth Friday events, weekend swap meets and special events like the annual Maui Fair.

In addition to food establishments, the branch also is in charge of inspecting and permitting milk plants, dairy farms, public swimming pools, tattoo establishments and mortuaries. Sanitarians also inspect barber shops, beauty salons, massage parlors, medical facilities, schools, care homes and transient accommodations like hotels and hostels.

The branch might be able to get a better handle on the overwhelming workload if it had more employees, Kitkowski said. There are currently two vacancies in the branch – one supervisory and one sanitarian position – which have been difficult to fill over the last several months.

“It’s hard because the pay is low and the cost of living in Hawaii is high,” Kitkowski said. “Also, you need a bachelor’s degree in science. We have a lot of chefs in culinary school. They don’t get a bachelor’s, they get an associate’s degree, but they understand everything we look for.”

The average annual starting salary for a sanitarian is around $45,000, and one of the mandatory requirements is a bachelor’s degree in a biological or physical science, according to department officials.

Though the starting salary does not compete with that of similar positions on the Mainland, there are no plans to either increase the salary or remove the minimum requirements, state Department of Health Sanitation Branch Chief Peter Oshiro said.

“I don’t know why Maui is having great difficulty (with hiring). On Oahu, when we open up one position we get 14 applicants,” Oshiro said. The other counties, Kauai and Hawaii Island, have not reported any vacancies in their districts either, he added.

The state Legislature granted 13 additional full-time inspector positions, with three positions on Maui, to be filled over the next three years, though the funding to hire has not yet been released. The department has proposed permit fee increases, as part of its new food safety rules, that would help fund the positions as well as other department operations.

“The additional staffing will support an expanded inspection schedule that will include a minimum of three on-site inspections each year for high-risk establishments, two on-site inspections each year for medium-risk establishments and annual visits for all other establishments to meet national program standards and reduce food-borne illness,” according to a state Health Department news release.

With permit fees ranging from $50 to $150 paid every two years, food establishments in Hawaii currently pay an average of $47 per year. The proposed rules would expand the range of fees from $50 to $600 to be paid annually, with eateries paying an average of $200 per year, Oshiro said.

The proposed rules also include adoption of the 2009 FDA Model Food Code and the introduction of a highly visible restaurant grading system that will require food establishments to post the results of their last state inspection.

A public hearing on the proposed rules has been scheduled for 1 p.m. Dec. 5 in the University of Hawaii Maui College’s Community Services Building. Other public hearings will be on Oahu, Hawaii Island and Kauai.

To report a suspected food safety violation, call the Maui District Health Office at 984-8230.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at