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DOH to raise the bar, adding higher standards for permits

When it comes time to renew business licenses for next year, higher, stricter standards will be in place for all businesses requiring a health permit. So says the head of the Department of Health’s Environmental Division, Papali’i Marion Fitisemanu.


In a telephone interview with Samoa News yesterday afternoon, Papali’i said that based on the numerous sanitation issues and safety hazards they discovered during this year’s inspections of local businesses, specifically restaurants and eateries, a decision has been made to place higher standards on health permit applications “to ensure the safety and well being of the general public.”


Earlier this year, DOH was on a roll, shutting down several schools in the Department of Education system and restaurants across the island due to unsanitary conditions and safety issues— including wastewater flow and overflowing septic tanks that produced foul odors and attracted bugs and flies.


Just last week, DOH inspectors shut down the fast food business located inside the Malaeimi marketplace next to the main road, which is frequented by college students and passers by.


Papali’i said that upon inspection of the eatery, they found dirt and grime in the cooking area and the place just “smelled bad.”


A re-inspection of the same restaurant will be carried out today, and whether or not they will re-open is dependent upon the results of today’s visit.


Papali’i explained that all business owners who hold health permits need to take “remedial action” and address sanitation issues as the renewal period for 2014 closes at the end of this year, on Dec. 31 and those who do not meet all the required standards will not be issued a health permit to operate.


“We want to raise the bar as far as the standards that businesses need to adhere to,” he said, adding that some business owners only make their businesses “appear” clean but a closer look will reveal filthy conditions.


“For all businesses, especially the ones that we closed down this year, we are giving them a standard that they need to comply with; otherwise, they will not be allowed to operate.”


Papali’i said it is going to be harder for business owners to get health permits, once the higher standards go into effect for next year’s renewal period, which is in two months.


When asked how many businesses are operating in the territory, Papali’i said he cannot provide an exact figure, although he revealed that a “big stream of new businesses have opened up during the last four months.”


He added, “where these people were during the first part of the year, I don’t know. But we have had new businesses popping up everywhere in the last few months.” According to him, the number of businesses requiring a health permit has grown so much that they have not been able to inspect all of them this year.


He said part of the reason is because they have very limited manpower, as they only have four inspectors on the road, not including the two that are stationed at the Tafuna Airport and the Fagatogo wharf.


Papali’i said part of the problem is they are having to “duplicate” their work, ever since the Department of Commerce “streamlined” the business license process by implementing a “one-day turn-around period.”


According to Papali’i, the previous process to acquire a business license required the applicant to fill in the application and then hand carry the paperwork to various government departments and agencies.


However, with DOC’s new process, the application is now faxed or emailed to DOH and Papali’i said that because they have a shortage of workers in their division, there is sometimes a delay in going out to conduct inspections.


He said some businesses are being issued business licenses from DOC without a health permit from DOH — and the end result is them having to shut the businesses down. “Sometimes, we even have to take them to court” — until they pass inspection and are issued the required health permit.


“This makes more work for us and it doesn’t help that some business owners are claiming that they were never told by DOC that they need a health permit prior to opening for business. It’s a case of people trying to take shortcuts and playing one against the other,” Papali’i said.


“The burden ends up on us, because as far as the business license application process goes, we are at the bottom of the barrel.”


In addition to food retailers and restaurants, Papali’i said their work also involves inspections of outdoor bathrooms, wastewater flow, and septic tanks. He explained there are some areas in both the west and east ends of the territory that are not yet hooked up to the ASPA sewer line and therefore, business owners in these areas have had to get their own septic tanks installed, even if it means digging between two houses.


He said some business owners have been known to install their own septic tanks without proper inspection and 2-3 months after they open for business, the water overflows and “that’s when it becomes our problem.”


The head of the Department of Health’s Environmental Division said some businesses are located in-between houses in residential areas “where there is no space to install a septic tank but still, business owners try to get ahead and cut corners by putting it in themselves.”


He said, “things like this end up being the responsibility and task of DOH, and it comes down to business owners taking short cuts and other government departments or agencies not doing their job.”


Papali’i concluded, “We believe in small businesses because they help the local community and we can’t complain because in the end, we are the ones that have to go back and re-route everything, as far as paperwork, when somebody else makes a mistake or there is an oversight on their part.” ‘


He added, “There are also some businesses that just care about making money and could care less about how their actions affect the environment and the general public.”