The St. Joseph’s Day salmonella outbreak that sickened 66 people and killed two in 2011, allegedly from a batch of bad zeppoles, was a turning point for food-safety inspection in Rhode Island.
Recession-induced budget cuts had depleted the ranks of state health inspectors, who once numbered several dozen, to seven people at the time of the incident. They were tasked with monitoring more than 4,400 food-service businesses.
Whether lack of state resources played any part in the outbreak is unclear – the Johnston bakery that made the suspicious pastries had passed an inspection a year earlier – but the situation caused alarm.
Since then, the R.I. Department of Health has worked to reinforce the Food Protection office, which by the end of this month should be back up to 19 full-time inspectors.
“I think over the years there has been a loss of staff through attrition and, with the nature of the economy and money tight, the positions didn’t get filled,” said Ernest Julian, state chief of food protection. “After [the 2011 outbreak] state auditors pointed out there was a need for more effort. Our goal now is to try to get into most places once a year – some places haven’t seen us for awhile.”
Of course, with more inspectors comes a greater expectation that Rhode Island food businesses follow the intricate federal health-safety guidelines the state enforces and guard against anyone getting sick.
With the culinary sector becoming an increasingly important part of the local economy and Providence chefs known for their innovative cuisine, the stakes on food safety are high.
Outbreaks like the 2011 salmonella crisis notwithstanding, eating is probably as safe now in Rhode Island and across the country as it has ever been.
In 2012, there were 266 food-borne illnesses reported in Rhode Island, down from 737 illnesses reported two decades earlier, according to figures from the R.I. Department of Health.
Between 1992 and last year, the number of cases reported declined steadily, with only small spikes, including one from 1996 to 1997 and a smaller one from 2008 to 2010. In 2008 there were 270 reported food-borne illnesses, which jumped up to 335 cases in 2010 before heading down to the new record low last year.