Hike Food Inspection Fees

Posted Sept. 02, 2008, at 4:46 p.m.

That slice of pizza you had for lunch on that busy workday could have made you violently ill. If it had, it didn’t necessarily mean that the corner convenience store where the pizza was made was being recklessly negligent. It’s just that the store was a bit too lax in hygiene or food storage or preparation practices. That may have happened because the store’s profit margin is slight, and so the clerk who made the pizza also had to juggle collecting money for gas, milk and cigarette sales. So maybe she didn’t have time to wash her hands in between mopping the floor, cleaning the bathroom and kneading the pizza dough.

One of the things that sets life in the United States apart from that in developing nations is the confidence we have that our government agencies are protecting us from unsafe food, medicine, elevators, bridges and the dozens of other things that are regularly inspected. But those inspections cost money. And rather than have the cost of the state workers who inspect food preparation establishments be borne by income and other broad-based taxes, the state typically charges the business that is inspected a licensing fee.

Steps are being taken in Augusta this month to raise those fees to more closely mirror the actual cost of the inspections.

Critics will point out that while both Gov. Baldacci and the Legislature took credit for closing the $90 million budget gap without raising income or sales taxes, they did raise fees. The food business licensing fee is one of those increases.

The Department of Agriculture was empowered by the Legislature and governor in the last session to raise fees on businesses that sell and make food. The department is responsible for licensing and inspecting retail food stores, from small establishments to large grocery chains, as well as bakeries, mobile vendors, maple syrup and cider producers, among others. Restaurants are inspected by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The fee increases, which are calibrated according to the size of the business, range from $1 for small businesses to $50 or more for big grocery stores. Collectively, they are expected to raise an additional $150,000. Some of the fees have not been increased in as long as 17 years.

No one wants to see the cost of doing business in Maine increase. But it makes sense to shift the cost for such important oversight work away from the general taxpayer to those who profit from the sale of food. And sure, the convenience store will probably pass the fee increase onto customers. But even if that slice of pizza costs a nickel more, it beats the cost of getting food poisoning.

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