CHICAGO — City officials plan to hire 23 more food safety inspectors after an audit by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson found that less than half of Chicago restaurants were inspected twice for food safety during 2015 as required by state law.
Ferguson's audit, released in November 2016, found that only 44 percent of businesses that serve food categorized as "high-risk" — including restaurants, hospital kitchens, day cares and schools — were inspected twice in 2015.
The city Department of Health's "failure to complete the required inspections may have allowed establishments to expose the public to an increased risk of food-borne illness," the original audit concluded.
The additional inspectors will allow the city to comply with state law, according to the Chicago Department's Health's response to the follow-up audit released Wednesday by Ferguson's office.
However, the original audit found that the city needed to hire 56 new food safety inspectors to comply with state law. That recommendation was based on federal guidelines, said Danielle Perry, a spokeswoman for Ferguson.
Officials with the Department of Health completed their own analysis to determine how many inspectors are needed per inspection based on historical data, Perry said.
In addition, state law has recently changed to allow the owners or managers of "low-risk" eateries — including bars, gas stations and convenience stores — to inspect their own establishments and certify that they have complied with the rules Perry said.
Given the differing federal standards and the change in state law, the health department's response "sounds reasonable," Perry said.
The Chicago Department of Public Health is committed "to maintaining the safety of food bought, sold or prepared for public consumption in Chicago by carrying out science-based inspections of all retail and wholesale food establishments," said spokeswoman Caitlin Polochak.
The city currently has 38 food inspectors on staff, four fewer than in 2012, according to the original audit.
Food-safety inspectors make between $53,000 and $84,000, while supervisors can make as much as $93,000, according to data provided by the city.
The failure to inspect retail food establishments as required by state law "undermines public trust in the city's capacity to fulfill this fundamental local government function," according to the original audit.
In addition, the infrequent inspections could have cost the city $2.5 million in state grants, according to the original audit.
The city inspected 80 percent of "medium risk" eateries, including grocery stores, bakeries, delis and schools that serve food prepared elsewhere, once in 2015, as required by state law, the original audit found.
In addition, only 25 percent of "low-risk" eateries were inspected at least once in the past two years, the original audit found.
While the city completed 20,900 food-safety inspections in 2015, it should have completed 30,026, according to the original audit.
The city collected $7.5 million in revenue from re-inspection fees, fines, and license fees in 2016, but spent $10.4 million to operate the Food Protection Program, according to the follow-up audit.
Health department officials agreed with the inspector general's recommendation to review the city's fines and fees related to inspections of eateries, according to the follow-up audit.