One of NJ’s largest towns hasn’t inspected its restaurants in years
HAMILTON (Mercer) — A health officer who once assured the public that every restaurant in the township is inspected twice a year was found by state officials to have "grossly failed" to carry out his duties, including allowing most restaurants to go without inspections for years.
In a letter to township Health Director Jeffrey Plunkett last week, the state Health Department’s Office of Local Public Health said the official is at risk of having his professional license revoked.
State health officials have been on Plunkett's case since September, when a complaint alleged that Plunkett was violating the law by not annually inspecting the Hamilton Animal Shelter prior to issuing its yearly operating license.
As the investigation unfolded, state officials received another complaint in February accusing Plunkett of violating state law by failing to annually inspect retail food establishments.
The OLPH letter said local health officials responded to the complaint by saying there was not enough personnel to inspect all the restaurants.
The letter said that Plunkett told the OLPH Director Shereen Semple that the township's "retail food establishment program had not been able to annually inspect all restaurants in Hamilton" for 40 years.
A review of the township's own data found that "most retail food establishments inspections were not current, and many of the most recent inspections had been conducted in 2017," according to the OLPH letter.
Restaurant inspections make sure that eateries are following safe food-handling protocols and maintaining sanitary conditions. Every year, 48 million people in the United States get sick from a foodborne illness and 3,000 die.
In late 2014, a food worker at a township restaurant was diagnosed with hepatitis A. Rosa's Restaurant closed a year later.
During a news conference on Dec. 2, 2014, amid the investigation into the hepatitis A case, Plunkett told the public that "health inspectors inspect every restaurant within Hamilton Township twice a year, to ensure that food establishments are sanitary and that workers are using gloves and practice good hygiene."
But that statement now appears to not have been entirely true or accurate.
Mayor Kelly Yaede released a written statement Tuesday criticizing the state investigation for using "inaccuracies and misleading statements" in describing Plunkett's tenure as health officer.
Yaede said that state health requirements do not require an annual inspection of each location, but that “the Department or health authority shall inspect every retail food establishment as often as it deems necessary.”
Yaede also said that township officials inspected Rosa's Restaurant four times in the year before the Hepatitis A case.
The state health investigation into the Hamilton Animal Shelter ultimately led to Plunkett and Todd Bencivengo, former supervisor of the shelter, being charged with animal cruelty and official misconduct.
In May, the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office said that between 2016 and 2018, 236 cats and 93 dogs were illegally euthanized at the Hamilton Animal Shelter before the seven day "grace period" required by state law for each animal to be held or offered up for adoption.
Following the charges, Yaede defended the animal shelter for what she said was a "public service" and sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, urging him to investigate the animal cruelty charges, which she said could be politically motivated.
Yaede, a Republican, is seeking re-election in November.