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July 3, 2008
By Sarah Green
KHI News Service
TOPEKA, July 3 The transfer of restaurant and lodging inspections from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to the Kansas Department of Agriculture is going smoothly, agency officials said.
The Legislature in April passed a law approving the transfer, which will be complete by Oct. 1.
Officials from both agencies meet regularly and have developed a "fairly extensive task list," said Lisa Taylor, spokeswoman for the agriculture department.
The agencies must determine how to move office equipment, payroll operations and employees from one building to another. Taylor said the third floor of the Mills Building at 9th and Kansas Ave., home of the agency"s current food safety division, will be reconfigured to accommodate the 35 employees who will be transferred from KDHE.
The department of agriculture now conducts other food safety inspections, such as those for meat and poultry producers and grocery and convenience stores.
The agencies are also working on a plan to make sure that legal cases regarding restaurant and lodging inspections are not affected by the transfer.
"We"ll be looking at the cases and the hearings that are pending, and how we can take them out of one agency and move to the other and not lose momentum," Taylor said.
For payroll purposes, the KDHE employees will become agriculture department employees on Sept. 22 in order to meet the Oct. 21 deadline. Meanwhile, they will start training in August to use handheld computers for inspections, said Mary Glassburner, director of the Bureau of Consumer Health at KDHE.
Restaurant and lodging inspectors now record their findings on paper, later transcribing it into a computer database, she said. The new computers allow them to transport inspections directly to the database.
"It will be a very smooth change for us, and a very advantageous change for food safety," Glassburner said of the new computer system. "I think the staff is very excited about that update."
The KDHE staff will also be trained to conduct grocery store inspections, Taylor said.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2004 issued an executive order transferring responsibility for regulating grocery stories, convenience stores and food manufacturers to the Department of Agriculture. Prior to the order and the passage of implementing legislation those businesses and others were often subject to regulation by both departments.
The 2004 decision came after a 2003 Legislative Post Audit report found that having food safety inspections in different agencies increased costs. The report recommended that all food safety responsibilities be housed at one department. Legislators this year said the restaurant and lodging inspections were the final pieces needed to complete the audit recommendations.
Both Taylor and Glassburner said the 2004 experience made it easier for both agencies to complete the latest transfers.
"Before, it was part of the program that was transferred," Glassburner said. "But when everything goes, the whole program goes, there"s no question that this will be a much smoother transition."
-Sarah Green is a staff writer for KHI News Service, which specializes in coverage of health issues facing Kansans. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 785-233-5443, ext. 118.