Restaurants across Sampson County will be subject to more stringent rules governing food preparation and safety, as North Carolina begins implementation of the comprehensive National Food Code on Sept. 1.
Teresa Underwood, environmental health supervisor for the Sampson County Health Department, gave an overview of what she calls an “intense” and “detailed” new set of rules to the Sampson County Board of Health earlier this week. After providing some background, she summarized a few highlights.
The state’s current rules, under the Food Protection Program, were adopted in 1976 and have been periodically amended to address specific needs. However, changes in consumer consumption patterns, recent emphasis on increased government efficiency, as well as shifts in the national food safety focus necessitated a more fundamental change to the state’s retail food protection rules, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
That led to legislators replacing state regulations with the federal food code.
“This summer the Legislature voted to adopt the National Food Code,” said Underwood. “This is a process that has been trying to occur in North Carolina for about 25 years. North Carolina has its own rules. Some states enforce the Food Code, some states enforce parts of the Food Code.”
The purpose of adopting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2009 Food Code is to replace what has proven to be a labor-intensive and ineffective process of updating North Carolina’s food protection rules with a more efficient and effective method. The Legislature recognized the need and subsequently passed a law adopting the Code.
That legislation will take effect Sept. 1.
“I think it’s a good tool,” Underwood said. “There’s a lot of good things in it.”
For members of the food service industry, the Food Code brings needed uniformity and consistency with the food safety rules of other states. It also provides means of reducing the risks of foodborne illnesses within food service facilities, thus protecting consumers and industry from potentially devastating health consequences and financial losses.
State officials have estimated that fewer sickness outbreaks should save the state $6 million over four years. The new rules are expected to cost restaurants more than $5 million in four years, but save money by protecting patrons. It is estimated that a foodborne illness outbreak costs a restaurant around $75,000.
“The diseases they are trying to prevent are salmonella, shigellosis, E.coli, norovirus and staph, what they call the big five,” said Underwood. “The whole idea of the Food Code is to try to increase food safety for the public. The manager, or the person in charge, is going to be held more responsible. So, if we go in and find violations … then he or she will be held responsible for what their actions might be. The Food Code assumes the manager or person in charge did not train properly to let the employees know the procedures to follow.”
Under the Food Code, the manager or operator of a food establishment, the “person in charge,” must have in-depth knowledge of its employees and their health, including any sicknesses that would now require them to leave the business until they are well.
Each person that is employed at that restaurant would have to sign (an employee health plan) addressing they have the knowledge of personal hygiene and what is expected to them. Those plans would vary depending on what type of food establishment, and in what capacity the person is working at the business.
“There is a guide we’re passing out to restaurants to help them develop their plans and understand some of the things that they will need to do,” said Underwood.
Among the highlights, new rules would require cold foods be kept colder, order sick restaurant workers to stay home and prohibit cooks from touching some foods with bare hands. Employees can no longer wear fingernail polish or long nails, unless they have the thicker gloves on, and jewelry on arms and hands — to include watches, bracelets and rings with stones — is prohibited with the exception of plain wedding bands.
Health classes would have to be attended by restaurant supervisors in order to become familiar with the new regulations, and penalties would be forthcoming for not having a person working at a food establishment at any given time who has attended such required classes, Underwood noted.
Effective Sept. 1, restaurants will no longer receive 2 points on top of their food safety rating for attending a class. It will be required. In January 2014, they will actually lose 2 points if there is not a person in charge ,who has been to those food safety courses, during an inspection.
“I never agreed with the 2 points anyway,” said Underwood, who noted food preparation and health education should be a prerequisite — that will now be the case.
Food safety rules, while going immediately go into effect Sept. 1, increasing environmental health inspectors’ grading sheets from two pages to three. However, while establishments may be marked out of compliance for new rules, they will not receive points off until years down the line.
Underwood said there are grace periods worked into the legislation that will not see points come off ratings for violations right away. For example, she said, not having a trained person in charge will not be punished by point deduction until 2014. Points will be lost for not following new refrigeration regulations starting in 2015.
“Part of that is because of the volume of people working in the food industry,” Underwood said. “It’s going to take a while to get everybody trained and also it can be rather expensive when talking about replacing walk-in coolers and refrigeration.”
She said the federal food code would bring an in-depth regulatory process that would protect both restaurants and consumers. It would also bring a sizable transition for food establishments and the agencies monitoring and regulating food safety practices.
“All this rolls out Sept. 1,” Underwood said. “This is going to be a learning process. It will be a challenge. It’s a whole new way of doing things than we have done them in the past.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.