Slow food safety

Implementation of new food-handler card law back-burnered until 2012

California’s new food-handler-certification law was supposed to go into effect this week, on July 1. Passed last year, it mandates that anyone who handles food in a commercial business will now have to be certified. This includes all Sacramento dishwashers, baristas, bartenders, managers and waiters, as well as chefs and cooks.

But there’s been confusion in the restaurant industry, however, as to who can issue these certificates and whether or not they are mandatory (they are). Meanwhile, an amendment is now being pushed through the state Legislature, “urgency measure” Senate Bill 303, that would push the compliance date back to January 1, 2012.

“Right now they’re doing a soft enforcement,” explained Taryn Kinney, press deputy for state Sen. Alex Padilla, who authored the landmark food-safety law last year. Between July and January, the health department will be issuing notices and educating food-business owners about the new certification process, Kinney explained.

Brooke Lonergan, a manager at Magpie Caterers Market and Cafe on R and 15th streets, says the new law will be a good thing. “Food safety is crucial, especially in a farm-to-table environment,” she explained.

Rosie Cerna, a certified food-safety trainer who runs Simple Food Safety Consulting, says that the average family today eats 50 percent of their weekly meals out. “This law has been in place in many other states for years,” she pointed out. “California should be leading the way in food safety and it is not.”

Many industry groups, including the California Restaurant Association, supported the law, which was inked by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last October. But even though tests are available online and via local certifiers such as Simple Foods, meeting the July 1 deadline—with more than 1 million food-industry jobs in California—was impossible.

Cerna says that misconceptions around who can certify and issue a food-handler card also contributed to the delay. Because the CRA was one of the main stakeholders and is in contact with most local restaurateurs, she argues that many people seem to think that their ServSafe program is the only one that can certify.

“It sounds like it was the CRA’s idea,” said Theresa Graham, another local food-safety instructor. “Not that it’s a bad idea, but it looks as if it was written to be more advantageous to them.”

CRA spokesman Daniel Conway says that the new law was a matter of conformity. Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties all have had stringent food-handler-safety programs in place for some time. “We felt confident that a statewide approach was better,” he explained. “Food safety is the foundation of the restaurant industry. When you can create a standardized education program, it makes sense.”

Some outfits will be exempt, such as food booths, certified farmers markets, grocery stores (including convenience stores), licensed health-care facilities, and public- and private-school cafeterias.

Some are surprised by this. “The fact that schools are exempt—holy cow, of all places,” said Graham. “It’s those kinds of exemptions that make you wonder if this is really in our best interest. Shouldn’t everyone have to do it?”

Other groups, such as the California Independent Grocers Association, argue that the law was passed without adequate outreach and input.

Until 2012, only one employee on a shift will be required to have food-safety certification. The new law will cost employers an estimated $50, in addition to an employee’s wages.