State cancels food safety contracts with 5 counties

The state's budget crunch has changed the face of restaurant inspections in several Kansas counties.

But not in Sedgwick County, where officials want to reassure the public that it's business as usual on the inspections.

"Our concern is that the public's going to think that the quality of food safety is going to go down in the state," said Don Sayler, president of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association.

The city of Wichita will continue to provide the inspections under a state contract, said Kay Johnson, the city's director of environmental services.

"We've got seven inspectors and a supervisor at work and... we have had the same people working this for years. Our contract with the state is signed and solid."

The Kansas Department of Agriculture this week terminated food safety contracts with five counties — Saline, Douglas, Geary, Riley and Reno.

The state's contract with the city of Wichita's environmental services division remains in place, as do similar contracts in Lyon and Johnson counties.

KDA spokeswoman Lisa Taylor said the department canceled the contracts to save about $245,000.

"We're on call 24/7 as it is, and we're still very responsible for all complaints, accidents, things like that," Taylor said.

Taylor and Sayler said consumer complaints will be answered within 48 hours by state inspectors.

"If the consumer has a complaint and it potentially involves a food-borne illness, we respond with an inspection in the next 24 hours," Taylor said. "If it doesn't involve an illness, we will respond in 48 hours."

It's the same story in Wichita, where Johnson said her inspectors respond within two days.

In addition, the city takes a step beyond state law, requiring that all food handlers complete an education course taught by the city.

Annually, between 8,000 and 9,000 people complete the course, Johnson said.

Sayler said he's concerned about the public's confidence in safe restaurant food because of the publicity surrounding the KDA's budget cuts.

"The safety of our food isn't going to change," he said. "All they've done is change from contract inspections to put it back at the state level. It's an economic issue only and we applaud the KDA for stepping up and being a leader.

"It's not the elimination of a service and the public needs to understand that."