Impromptu restaurant inspections are a part of public safety, and a job the El Paso County Health Department takes very seriously.
But since the department's budget was cut a few years ago, those inspections are happening less frequently.
Deputy Public Health Administrator Candi Buckland says, "It's a risk, and we are concerned, because we aren't out there as much as we'd like to be."
County officials admit, the money just isn't available, and there's no telling when it will be.
"We really would like to find more money for them, but with the county's budget situation right now, we can't do that," says County Commissioner Sallie Clark.
There are currently 2,500 restaurants in El Paso County, everything from the hot dog stand to five-star restaurants, and only eight inspectors on staff to keep tabs on them. That's half of what the government recommends.
The state wants restaurants to be inspected twice a year. But in El Paso County, they're lucky to get to every restaurant once.
And now, we may be seeing the affects.
"We have seen a rise in complaints related to food born illness," says Buckland.
Last year, the health department received 150 complaints about food poisoning and 291 complaints about restaurants themselves. That's up from 178 in 2006 and 60 in 2005.
“Restaurants, for the most part, actually welcome the education they get from the inspections. And for good reason,” says John Ra at Tomo Sushi in Colorado Springs.
"Serving bad food is going to kill business anyway," adds Ra.
And according to health inspectors, 70 percent of the time, an inspection at any given restaurant will turn up one or two critical violations.
So, what's the solution to this community-wide problem?
No one seems to have the answer.
"There are no grants or specific state funding available for restaurant inspections," says Buckland.
The health department says, it will inspect restaurants with a history of violations first, but admits others may fall through the cracks
And, with more restaurants popping up every day, the concern will only grow.
It's important to note, the health department does investigate every complaint it receives.
But those impromptu inspections are what are lacking, and those are the ones that help prevent illness.
The department offers food safety classes to restaurant employees.
But, they also need public assistance. That means people calling the health department immediately to report a food borne illness or other violation.
To report a restaurant violation, call the El Paso County Health Department at 575-8635. To report a violation in Pueblo County, call 583-4323.
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