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Oregonians easily can check whether their favorite restaurants meet basic standards for food safety. But grocery stores? Nope. That information is off-limits without filing a public records request.

The state officials responsible for regulating grocery stores see no problem with that lack of transparency and public accountability. Really!

This illustrates the value of watchdog reporting. But it shouldn’t fall to the news media to do the government’s work for it. The government must make these records open and transparent to the public at the click of a mouse.

Even staff at the state Department of Agriculture was unaware that state regulations called for a point system, which was part of the agency’s internal database, according to the newspaper.

It’s not that Agriculture Department officials are blasé about food safety. But unlike their counterparts at the state and county health departments, who regulate restaurants and certain other food outlets, they don’t want to risk rattling the industry they oversee.

Officials in the department’s Food Safety Program cast their role as educating grocers and helping them take corrective actions when necessary, not holding them to an arbitrary point system for maintaining food safety. In contrast, the Oregon Health Authority partnered with county health departments to create a searchable database of restaurants and other businesses regulated through its Food, Pool & Lodging Health and Safety Program.

Gov. Kate Brown and the Legislature share the blame for what seems a too-cozy relationship between the Agriculture Department and the grocery industry. These concerns are not new.

A 2014 investigation by the Statesman Journal revealed the department was months and years behind in its grocer inspections, which led the Secretary of State’s Office to audit the program. The audit report found more than 2,800 firms were at least three months overdue for inspection, the inspection program suffered heavy staff turnover and there was no coherent way of tracking unlicensed firms, along with other problems. The program was understaffed, which is a state budget issue. But the staff also was not deployed effectively.

Food-borne illnesses are a legitimate public health concern, and food safety within stores has become more complex as consumers have demanded a wider array of fresh food and foods prepared in-store. The challenges are the same — keeping food preparation surfaces clean, maintaining foods at proper temperatures, ensuring employees wash their hands and much more — but far more employees, products and equipment are now involved.

The grocery industry is a low-margin business that faces a number of economic and demographic pressures. But stores should welcome a public ratings system, not fear it. Ratings have become a part of everyday life. Consumers expect them, use them but also understand their shortcomings.

Increased public awareness ups the ante for store managers in training and monitoring employees in food safety practices, along with properly maintaining equipment. A well-operated store, regardless of size or location, should be proud of its public record, whereas a store with ongoing serious violations should face the public consequences.

— The (Eugene) Register Guard

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