Potatoes, salads and other foods in a buffet table.
(Photo via Adobe Stock)

Allegheny County employs less than half its budgeted number of food safety inspectors and the first two months of 2022 saw an unusually low number of restaurant inspections as staffing troubles strain this essential public health service.

The Food Safety Program, housed in the county’s Health Department, is tasked with inspecting more than 8,000 restaurants and food facilities, each at least once per year. (Some facilities, which distribute only pre-packaged food, can be inspected once every two years.) It conducts additional inspections in response to consumer complaints and to follow up after violations are found. 

While some government services are hampered by a shortage of budgeted positions, that is not the case with the food safety team. It is budgeted for 30 food safety inspectors, though they only employ 14 at present.

The number of inspections conducted by the team consistently declined in the second half of 2021 and early 2022, dropping from 1,067 and 897 in June and July, respectively, to 584 in December, according to data published by the county. 

It has fallen even lower in 2022. The first two months of the year saw fewer inspections than the same period in any year going back to 2014 — in some cases less than half as many.

Inspections are meant to ensure that food preparation and employee hygiene practices are followed to prevent foodborne illnesses like salmonella, norovirus and E. coli. According to the Food and Drug Administration, symptoms of common foodborne illnesses in the United States include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, substantial weight loss, nausea and other flu-like symptoms. Serious cases can result in hospitalization or death.

Health Department spokesperson Chris Togneri wrote in an email to PublicSource that the pandemic changed how the food safety program managed its processes, and restaurants’ altered operating hours made it more difficult to inspect them during open hours. “But the Food Safety Program adjusted to work through the various challenges logistically and plan inspections accordingly,” Togneri said.

He also pointed to reduced permit review times (from 60 days in 2020 to 12 days in December 2021) and a regulatory overhaul effort as recent accomplishments for the agency.

Donna Scharding, who worked in the Food Safety Program for 38 years and was its manager from 2015 until her retirement in 2021, said the low salary for inspectors became “a No. 1 problem” in retaining staff.

The starting salary is $31,680. Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree in a science field and a car, “but their salary is comparable to that of a clerk typist,” Scharding said. “It is not a living wage.”

“I once had a staff [member] say, ‘I don’t have enough money to buy a blouse,’” Scharding said. “That was really upsetting.”

Togneri said the salary is negotiated with the inspectors’ union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and told PublicSource to ask the union about the salary level. The local AFSCME unit did not respond to requests for comment.

A review of county payroll data shows that the food safety inspectors are paid less than clerks and administrative assistants throughout the county government, as well as housekeepers and food service workers at the Kane nursing homes, despite the elevated educational requirements of the job.

Scharding said constant turnover and short staffing made it more difficult for her team to accomplish its mission. 

“It’s much more difficult when you’re constantly in training mode,” Scharding said. She said it was typical for employees to leave after two years or fewer. Scharding said when she managed the team, there were usually around 19 inspectors on the payroll. 

Natalie Sciulli, who graduated from Allegheny College in 2020 with an environmental science degree, worked as a county health inspector from November 2020 until May 2021, when she left to take a job at Phipps Conservatory. 

She said a number of her colleagues left for better pay elsewhere, including to other government agencies, such as at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

“Some people got burnt out,” she said. “The salary wasn’t really the best for how stressful the position was.”

She added that enforcing COVID-19 safety rules made the job particularly stressful. “It’s a difficult position to be in when you’re trying to tell restaurant owners to follow occupancy guidelines when they’re struggling financially,” Sciulli said.

Togneri said COVID-19-related inspections took more time than typical ones and resulted in fewer inspections overall. But the county’s mitigation measures expired at the end of May 2021, and COVID-19 inspections were phased out. 

Scharding said she wanted to develop a dynamic method of prioritizing inspections based on staffing levels and the risk level of each facility, but it didn’t get done before she retired. She said that, as of the time she retired, prioritization was based on consumer complaints, with routine inspections done at facilities geographically near the complaint-based inspections. 

Togneri said the county conducts "as many inspections as possible, with inspections planned and prioritized based on a number of factors," including type of facility, complaints, amount of food handled and violation history.

Scharding said some geographical areas can become more neglected when staff resign because each inspector is given a region to cover. When one resigns, that territory is added to another inspector’s list, stretching their limited time even further. 

“It’s hard to get to everything you need to just being one person,” Sciulli said. “I think you just tried to get whatever inspections you could. You’d prioritize them, so ones with a history of a lot of violations would be the highest priority.”

Although many had been inspected recently, a PublicSource spot check of the county’s inspection lookup tool showed some of the highest-priority restaurants had most recently been inspected between one and three years ago. A high priority designation is based on past complaints and violations.

Just a few of them were restaurants in Shadyside, Allentown, Castle Shannon, Monroeville and the South Side. Some were full-service restaurants, others were fast food chains or catering businesses. (Check any restaurant’s status using the county’s lookup tool.)

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2019 that the county was struggling to inspect all of its facilities then, too. In the months leading up to that report, though, inspections were done at a clip more than 70% higher than they are in 2022. 

Food safety inspections are aimed primarily at preventing foodborne illness. They are designed to focus on known risk factors, like employee behavior and food storage conditions, said North Carolina State University food safety expert Ellen Shumaker.

Shumaker said inspecting for employee hygiene standards, like frequent handwashing, prevents certain illnesses, such as norovirus, while food handling standards such as temperature and cooking practices prevent others, like salmonella and E. coli.

Sciulli said a number of her former coworkers have left the program since she herself resigned.

“For something so important that monitors and makes sure food is safe, it should be valued a bit more,” Sciulli said. “People aren’t incentivized to stay.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.

This story was fact-checked by Katelyn Vue. 

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...