Inspector has eye on Hermiston mobile vendors

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HERMISTON, Ore. (AP) — Umatilla County health inspector Melissa Ney walks around the small space inside Sharon's Dutch Oven, a mobile food vendor open Fridays and Saturdays in Hermiston's Ace Hardware parking lot.

"Half of it is checking that everything is in order, but half of it is a conversation," Ney said. "I can't be there when they close up at 10 o'clock at night, so we talk through their process."

Mobile vendors have been given the spotlight in Hermiston of late, as the city searches out reasonable restrictions for the vendors.

The county already has health codes that mobile vendors are supposed to comply with. The mobile vendors in Umatilla and Morrow counties are subject to the same food sanitation rules dictated by the Oregon Health Authority as restaurants.

However, unlike restaurants, which are given a 0-100 score available on the Umatilla County Public Health Department's website, mobile vendors are given a pass or fail grade. Failure means a visit from Ney within two weeks. Failure again means the vendor is out of business.

If all is running smoothly, Ney makes two unannounced visits to the 44 mobile vendors in Umatilla and Morrow counties each year, more if there are complaints, re-inspections or a change in ownership. Some seasonal vendors, such as those at the county fair, are visited once a year.

But that's not nearly all. Ney does inspections for every public entity — hotels, pools, restaurants and more. Her list of places to get to each year tops 400.

The department of public health is also on the lookout for a part-time health inspector to ease the load on Ney. Public health administrator Genni Lehnert-Beers said that addition is all the budget can handle right now.

Nookie's Restaurant owner Mitch Myers has been following the practices of mobile vendors for eight years.

Myers said the public health department would be overburdened even with the part-time inspector, and it's letting mobile vendor health regulations take the hit. He said in addition to not paying taxes, the majority of the vendors have multiple offenses, from cooking raw meat in their vehicles, to leaving meat in portable coolers, to setting propane tanks on the ground.

"The reality of it is they leave them alone and they screw with us," Myers said of the mobile vendors compared to the brick-and-mortar businesses in the area. "We don't need more new laws, we don't any new committees or any other subcommittees. We just need to enforce the laws we already have."

Ney shakes her head. She said even with her busy days, she gives full inspections to all her vendors on schedule. She admits, though, that violations can slip by in between her unannounced visits.

"I get a snapshot of what happens," Ney said. "What people tell me is what I know."

According to Lehnert-Beers, the goal is to work with the vendors to meet health codes.

"We try really hard with any of our establishments that if they're not at a level that is up to par, we try to get them there," she said.

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Information from: East Oregonian, http://www.eastoregonian.info

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