MIAMI — No one is inspecting food preparation at Florida's hospitals and nursing homes, nearly one month after the inspections were stopped in a budget-cutting move, officials said Friday.
The state Health Department said it's working with other agencies to figure out who will handle inspections at the state's 286 hospitals and 671 nursing homes.
Meanwhile, the Department of Children and Families is temporarily taking over the inspection of day care centers, which were also part of the cuts.
The Health Department had been inspecting facilities four times a year until Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill (HB 5311) stopping them. Experts say people at these facilities are the most vulnerable for food-borne illnesses.
Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said the agencies will work together until the Legislature can re-examine the cuts next year.
Food-borne illnesses linked to these facilities have sickened hundreds of Florida consumers in at least 15 separate outbreaks since 1995, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group in Washington D.C.
DCF Secretary George Sheldon said his agency decided to fill the gap at day cares and will temporarily oversee inspections because "it was the right thing to do."
DCF employees already inspect day care facilities for safety issues. Sheldon said the Legislature was trying to consolidate inspections to prevent multiple state agencies from visiting the same facilities to inspect different standards.
"It's sometimes not the easiest thing to come up with a solution that gets the appropriate expertise and is as streamlined as possible," Sheldon said.
The Health Department inspected more than 15,000 day care centers last year and found nearly 12,000 violations, including food from unsafe sources, poor hygiene and contaminated equipment.
Florida has already seen an uptick in the norovirus, which is often spread by food-borne contamination.
Between January and March, there were 122 reported outbreaks of norovirus in Florida, compared with 59 outbreaks during the same time period in 2009, Health Department spokeswoman Susan Smith said.
The decision to end the inspections has been harshly criticized.
"Ending food safety inspections in the kitchens that feed those populations is like taking seat belts out of their cars and hoping no one has an accident," said Sarah Klein, an attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The changes come after the Institute of Medicine urged the Food and Drug Administration to delegate more food facility inspections to the states, she said.
Critics say state health departments are already strapped for cash and manpower.
"Nobody's going to just walk away. These are things that are needed and the public wants," Palm Beach County Health Department spokesman Tim O'Connor said.