Iowa to dramatically cut back on restaurant inspections; plan is for once every five years

Iowa Capital Dispatch
October 12, 2022

The state of Iowa is planning to dramatically scale back the routine inspection of restaurants and other food-service establishments by making only one onsite inspection every five years.

Currently, most Iowa restaurants are subjected to at least one routine inspection every three years. They are also inspected in response to complaints or changes in ownership.

Complaint-driven and ownership-related inspections will continue. But in the absence of those issues, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals intends to visit each Iowa restaurant no more than once every five years under a set of new rules that are expected to take effect next month.

The new administrative rule, set to take effect Nov. 9, covers other businesses that sell prepared food, such as grocery stores with delis, sushi bars or other ready-to-eat items.

Mitzi Baum, CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness. (Photo courtesy of the organization.)

“This is the antithesis of consumer-focused public policy,” said Mitzi Baum, CEO of the consumer advocacy group Stop Foodborne Illness. “Five years is such a prolonged period of time without having an inspection. The increased risk to public health is exponential … Three years is inadequate, let alone five years.”

She said 1 in 6 Americans – or 48 million people – are sickened each year by a food-borne illness. About 128,000 of those people will be hospitalized, she said, and an estimated 3,000 people will die.

“That’s unacceptable,” Baum said. “And rolling back regulations on something that is preventable is unconscionable.”

Jessica Dunker of the Iowa Restaurant Association said the five-year inspection cycle is not something her organization sought.

“That wasn’t something that came at the request of the restaurants across the state, but I am not uncomfortable with it,” she said. “We do like to see the emphasis focused on complaints … I believe we have other protections in place.”

Jessica Dunker of the Iowa Restaurant Association. (Photo courtesy of the organization.)

She pointed out that Iowa law requires every restaurant to have a certified food protection manager on staff, which provides for a form of self-policing.

She acknowledged that DIA regularly cites restaurants for violating that law, but said she’s seeing more and more eateries embrace the concept of having one such person working every shift.

The proposed change comes in the wake of DIA’s recent acknowledgement that for the past eight years, it has inspected Iowa’s 700 hotels and motels only on a complaint basis. That is despite a longstanding state law that requires such businesses to be inspected at least once every two years.

Like the hotel inspections, DIA contracts with a dozen or so cities and counties to conduct inspections at restaurants in their jurisdiction. Those cities and counties will be free to either adopt DIA’s schedule of inspections or conduct more frequent visits.

Other states inspect every six months

Iowa’s proposed five-year inspection cycle for restaurants is significantly longer than that of many other states.

South Dakota, for example, inspects all food establishments at least twice each year.

In Nebraska, high-risk food establishment are inspected twice per year, with medium-risk operators inspected once each year. The low-risk establishments are inspected every 18 months.

In Illinois, high-risk establishments are inspected three times per year, with medium-risk restaurants inspected once per year. The low-risk businesses are inspected once every two years.

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In Minnesota, restaurants and stores that prepare sushi are inspected every nine months. Even gift shops that sell only prepackaged snacks are inspected every 42 months.

Baum said Iowa’s proposed change is curious since it appears that in 2021, DIA updated its food code by adopting the 2017 version of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s recommended standards. The FDA standards state that restaurant inspections should take place at least every six months – with exceptions made for establishments operating under approved hazard-analysis plans.

Larry Johnson, director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals. (Photo by Caroline Wright, Accura HealthCare of Stanton)

DIA has repeatedly declined to make anyone on staff available for an interview. The department director, Larry Johnson, did not respond to calls and emails Wednesday.

Dunker has said Iowa’s restaurants and hotels appreciate DIA’s approach to regulation and oversight, adding that regulators in other states take a more aggressive approach.

“What I like, and what the industry likes, about the Department of Inspections and Appeals in Iowa is that it’s not a ‘gotcha’ agency,” Dunker said. “To be honest, that is something that as an industry we have appreciated … We really consider them partners.”

Baum, the CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness, says there’s nothing wrong with inspectors avoiding a ‘gotcha’ mentality and being a partner with the businesses they regulate – as long as their goal is protecting consumers.

“Working in partnership is positive,” she said, “but working in partnership to reduce food safety is not working in partnership with the public. It leaves them at risk.”

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In recent years, several states around the nation have moved in the opposite direction of Iowa by increasing their oversight of restaurants in response to growing public awareness of violations and food-safety issues.

In New Mexico, for example, the state’s restaurant association historically opposed mandates for food-safety training of restaurant workers. But in 2016, it came out in support of such measures, citing negative publicity and a “huge surge in media coverage” of inspectors’ findings, which many states were posting online.

“We believe we must protect restaurants by advocating for, and providing, education that keeps restaurants off the front page of the paper,” the association said at the time.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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