MOUNT VERNON — Annual fees for food safety program inspections have increased 25 percent following three recent readings and one public hearing before the Knox County Health Department board. That means 300 licensed food-serving businesses in the county — grocery stores, restaurants, convenience stores and others — are required to postmark their payments by March 1 or receive a 25 percent fine.

Fees related to food service operation inspections are controlled through state guidelines. The 25 percent increase this year is the first since 2017, said Nate Overholt, county environmental health director. His staff of sanitarians conduct the inspections every year, which can take the better part of an entire day for a large grocery store in excess of 25,000 square feet such as Walmart or Kroger. Mobile food service operators, such as those operating a food booth at the Knox County Fair, are not required to pay their annual fees and receive their inspections just before the event date.

There are reasons for the food inspection increases, Overholt said. Under state law, counties cannot make a profit on inspections, but the cost charged must cover the sanitarian’s time as well as administrative fees, fringe benefits and mileage. The inspection form used now is also much more comprehensive than before and so takes longer to complete, he said. There are 66 criteria to check off on two pages.

If a food-service related violation is found, the response on the form involves citing if the violation is critical or non-critical. The sanitarian must also cite the section of code violated.

“If it’s critical we will make sure they take care of it immediately, and then we go back later to inspect it again,” he said. He added as one example, a critical violation would be a refrigeration unit that is above 41 degrees. That often involves throwing out any food above that temperature, as warmer than allowed food risks bacterial contamination.

Inspection fees for food service operations are based on categories such as commercially licensed operations over or under 25,000 square feet; non-commercially licensed operations over or under 25,000 square feet; and mobile food service categories.

Food service inspection fees are also divided by risk level.

A small commercial store that only sells coffee and pre-packaged food that is not time or temperature controlled, for example, would be at risk level 1, Overholt said. One that sells food that is time or temperature controlled and involves handling such food is at level 2. Level 3 involves food handling, cutting or grinding raw meat products, and duties such as cutting or slicing ready-to-eat meats and cheeses. Risk level 4 often involves preparing and also reheating time and temperature controlled food in bulk, such as large vats of soup, Overholt said. Catering businesses would fall into this category.

Already prepared food or cooked food that is time and temperature controlled, and ready to eat, cannot be touched with bare hands, Overholt said. Such food involves utensils such as tongs or deli wrappers so such food as hot dogs or donuts are not potentially contaminated. The potential risk for food-borne illnesses is always higher for risk level 3 and level 4 food operations, which is why all food-handling employees need to follow rules such as frequent hand washing, he added.

The cost of inspection usually increases with the business’s risk level. Commercial businesses under 25,000 square feet, such as gas station/convenience stores serving food, have paid a current annual fee of $224 for the level 1 fee, $247 for level 2, $441 for level 3, and $550 for level 4. Those fees are now increasing by 25 percent. Knox County could have chosen options that included keeping the fees as is, or increasing them either by 20 percent, 25 percent, or the maximum fee allowable. The county considered its costs for sanitarian work and chose 25 percent.

Notices of the new food service operations fees were sent to about 300 food-serving businesses and entities 20 days before the public hearing, Overholt said. The county health department received just one email, two phone calls and one person who attended the public hearing.

“Obviously, they didn’t want to see the fees go up,” he said, adding that while one respondent asked if monthly payments were possible, state law does not allow for it.

The highest food inspection fee, $1,392, would involve a level 4 inspection at a large commercially licensed grocer greater than 25,000 square feet in size, Overholt said, and there are only two in that category — Walmart and Kroger.

The county also increased Water Program fees by 10 percent. The cost for a permit to drill a well for a single family home is increasing from $275 to $303. A permit to alter water for a single family home, such as adding an additional water line, is increasing from $132 to $145.

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Larry Di Giovanni: 740-397-5333 or larry@mountvernonnews.com and on Twitter, @mountvernonnews