By regulating, inspecting, and licensing food providers, local and state health departments ensure the hygiene and safety of the food we eat at all the various points in the supply chain, from distribution centers to grocery stores and restaurants.
Whether inspecting establishments, investigating citizen complaints, or enforcing compliance with sanitation standards, environmental health and safety (EHS) departments are often the first and most important line of defense in preventing dangerous and sometimes fatal outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.
However, a worrying impediment to this prevention is putting the public at risk of unsafe food – the quickly growing backlog of food hygiene inspections, not just in the United States, but in many countries across the world. This is a troubling situation on its own, but one that has been dangerously exacerbated by the pandemic.
First looking at the scope, causes, and consequences of this backlog, we’ll then turn to how recent advances in mobile inspection technology have made available the best possible tools to help EHS departments eliminate the growing backlog of food hygiene inspections and eliminate the threat of major public health crises.
Food inspection backlog: scope, causes and consequences
Even before the pandemic, the CDC reported in 2020 that foodborne infections were increasing. Despite being preventable through more inspections, foodborne illnesses constitute a major public health challenge, with 48 million foodborne disease illnesses each year, requiring an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and causing 3,000 deaths.
Unfortunately, local and state EHS departments have faced staffing and resource restraints for many years. For example, from 2008 to 2016, local health departments in the US experienced a staffing decline of more than 2,000 full-time environmental health positions.
The recent pandemic has now also worsened the problem. Despite food providers being deemed as essential during the pandemic, many jurisdictions greatly reduced, deferred, or even ceased their food safety inspection operations, either because of limited access or health officers being redirected to COVID enforcement duties.
While a massive labor shortage is also worsening the backlog crisis, even if health departments can find both the financial and human resources to begin tackling the backlog, they will likely rely on new or contract workers who will need more training time to get up to speed.
So with labor issues likely here to stay, food inspection backlogs are poised to grow with it, along with the potential likelihood of major outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.
In the UK, for example, more than 60,000 scheduled food inspections did not happen and more than 50,000 remain outstanding. Or take Baltimore, where city auditors in 2018 said the health department needed at least 40 food safety inspectors to keep up with state standards – but in 2022, only 13 inspector positions are budgeted and there are only 8 inspectors on staff.
How Fulcrum can help
Given the potential fallout, number of stakeholders and current state of backlogs, food safety inspections are challenging for any EHS department, but the advent of user-friendly digital inspections platforms offers an affordable and powerful way to quickly collect reliable inspection data and eliminate backlog.
Out of the box, leading platforms like Fulcrum empower inspectors with digital checklists that can be customized by supervisors with accurate inspections procedures, allow all team members to access and update cloud data in real-time, and offer a wide range of options to share the right inspection data with the right people at the right time.
These features make it easy to overcome current major challenges of the food hygiene inspections process, including:
Onboarding. Inspection backlogs almost guarantee that EHS departments will need to either hire new employees, contractors, or temporary workers. As it stands, training new inspectors is already causing inspection deferrals and using up precious time that could otherwise be used for eliminating backlog. Fulcrum’s digital checklists make it easy to onboard new staff, regardless of their experience. No matter what kind of food provider is being inspected, managers can customize checklists with specific SOPs and use dropdown menus so specific step-by-step instructions are easy to follow. And because inspection data is instantly collected and shared on the cloud, supervisors can monitor the progress of new inspectors, ensuring both the quality of their work and timely remediation.
Speed & Efficiency. Fulcrum is a one-stop solution to efficiently conduct inspections. Not only can inspectors collect reliable data directly on their mobile devices, they also can include value-added geolocation data and multimedia like audio and video files for added insight. That sharing of data can be done in real-time and remotely means travel to and from the office to fill in reports, share information, or strategize remediation is effectively eliminated, letting inspectors and supervisors alike focus on the more important job of getting inspections done well and on time.
Information-sharing. On the internal collection side, Fulcrum brings inspections teams together across a shared tool so that everyone is working from the same underlying, cloud-connected data. The unfettered circulation of uniform, reliable, and context-rich data across EHS departments effectively closes information gaps that tend to delay food inspections. On the external stakeholder side, inspection data can be collated, analyzed, and then shared with anybody, in a variety of different reporting formats, no matter how many auditors, business owners or agencies are involved.
With so many moving parts involved in food inspection, information is often spread too thinly across stakeholders or lost in systemic silos, leading to inspection delays and potentially dangerous outbreaks.
The sum of Fulcrum’s digital inspection platform features affords local and state EHS departments the rigorous data collection, high-level visibility, and data sharing that strikes at the heart of the problem, allowing both inspections and any remediation efforts to happen quicker and more efficiently, thus reducing backlogs.
Especially at a time when they are pressed from all sides by funding and labor shortages, Fulcrum helps EHS department keep the public and workers safe through timely, efficient, and consistent food safety inspections.
Not convinced? Read more about how Fulcrum eliminates inspection backlogs.