The Dallas Morning News reported last week that hundreds of businesses across Texas have been manufacturing and selling food without a state license or health inspections.
The offending businesses were discovered in what The Dallas Morning News called “a statewide crackdown” on unlicensed food manufacturers that began last year by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
But since virtually all of the businesses targeted by the state had absolutely no idea they needed a state license, this can hardly be considered a “crackdown”.
In fact, the actions taken by the Texas Department of State Health is more of a frantic attempt at playing catch up. The department is under political pressure after an unlicensed Texas peanut plant was linked to last year’s deadly salmonella outbreak.
In 2009, seven hundred people were hospitalized and nine died in connection with the outbreak of salmonella traced to Peanut Corp. of America. The company had plants in both Blakely, Georgia and Plainvew, Texas.
Dozens of lawsuits were filed in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history in which nearly 4,000 peanut related products were recalled. Texas state health inspectors had no idea the Plainview plant was operated by the same company as the Georgia plant, or even that the Plainview plant existed for that matter — until the outbreak.
The health department levied the highest fine in its history against the bankrupt peanut plant -– $14.6 million — and collected nothing. State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls demanded that the state health department devise a plan for identifying businesses producing food without a state license.
The Texas Department of Health Services “excuse was that if these businesses don’t get a license with the agency, then how was the agency supposed to know they exist?” recalled Ren Nance, who staffs the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs.
But it’s the state’s responsibility to inform companies they need a license, not a company’s responsibility to inform the state. Since every business in the state must file with various city and county agencies, there are plenty of opportunities for the state to coordinate efforts to communicate state license requirements to businesses via city and county agencies.
“We just didn’t know,” said Skeet George, who had to pay a late fee for operating without a manufacturer’s license for the previous five years. George owns Angelo’s Bar B Que in Fort Worth, which has sold seasonings and sauces for years in local grocery stores, including Albertson’s, Central Market and Kroger.
The department has since devised a method for finding unlicensed companies from databases of food-related businesses that were already known to other state agencies. They then compared their list with businesses that were licensed as food manufacturers — a measure that could easily have been conducted before the salmonella outbreak occurred.
They came up with 520 companies statewide as possible food producers that were operating without a license, but laboriously trimmed the number down to 355. Inspectors are still going through the list 15 months after the effort began.
“It’s a fraction of the total 24,000 licensees we have in the state,” said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the health department. “We have 37 food manufacturing inspectors for the whole state, with seven of those positions vacant because of a state hiring freeze.”