NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A new city audit of the Environmental Health Department says restaurants are not being inspected as they should be for potential health violations. Plus, some of these establishments haven’t even gotten the required licenses. The department says COVID played a big role in a lot of the problems.

Environmental Health Department inspectors were given a new mission during the pandemic – making sure restaurants and food establishments like grocery and convenience stores were following the Public Health Order. They say they were responding to so many complaints, normal inspections became a secondary focus.

The city must inspect every restaurant and food establishment twice a year. The deputy director explained in the past how it works. “If something’s severe enough, it could actually call for an immediate closure,” said Mark DiMenna, Deputy Director of the City of Albuquerque Environmental Health Department. “Generally, if they accumulate enough violations, it would come in the form of a downgrade.”

But a new city audit reveals regular inspections were not being done. According to health department records from October 2021, 377 establishments had not received their required inspections.

Two months later, of 25 past due inspections, 17 still had not been completed. The Environmental Health Department says because of continually changing health orders, low staffing, and employee quarantine requirements, it was hard to keep up.

The deputy director told KRQE last year it’s also been a struggle to get restaurants to comply. “We’ve had a handful of cases where facilities are just not getting it, just don’t want to hear it, and we have to be a little more stern about enforcement. But, by and large, it’s just a matter of not understanding what they’re being asked for,” said DiMenna.

The audit also points out the department did not require verification that a business had obtained a permit from the city before a health inspection was done. In a sample of 41 inspections, the audit identified 19 instances where a business did not possess a valid business permit to operate.

They are working on updates to the health permit application process that would require business permits be obtained before inspections should occur. The audit also recommends 16 to 18 full-time inspectors in the department. Right now, they have eight – significantly below the National Retail Food Regulatory Program’s recommended levels.

The audit also pointed out a surplus in funding, generated by inspection permit fees. They suggested the department use that money to hire more inspectors. The department explained it isn’t that simple, they have to follow the spending plan designated by the city, and city leaders would have to reallocate those extra funds.