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State public health officials want to update North Carolina’s antiquated food safety rules. But it won’t come without some pain to the restaurant industry.
By Rose Hoban
Across the country, 49 states have embraced new rules adopted by the Food and Drug Administration in 2009 to improve food safety and decrease the risk of food poisoning. But not North Carolina.
Public health officials hope to change that this year. Last week, they held the first of a series of public hearings to get input on North Carolina’s adoption of new food safety rules based on the new FDA standard.
Each year, thousands of people in North Carolina get sick from food-borne illnesses caused by bacteria such as listeria, e. coli and salmonella. According to the Communicable Disease Branch of the Division of Public Health, more than 250 people across the state got sick from what they ate in January alone, diseases caused by bacteria such as e.coli, norovirus, and salmonella.
And those are just the diseases that people report to their doctors or local health departments. Medical scientists estimate the real toll from food-borne illnesses is far higher.
Public health officials are hoping to reduce those numbers, and so are people whose job it is to serve food. The two groups have been working together for the past year to tailor the FDA rules to fit North Carolina.
“An outbreak of food poisoning can happen to anyone, it can happen to the best operations” said Alyssa Barkley from the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. “And it’s been known to shut a restaurant down.”
Barkley said her organization is in support of efforts to update the rules around food safety.
“There are some operational changes that restaurants will have to incur,” she said. “But as long as they’re science-based, we believe they will protect the public and our industry.”
“We have an antiquated platform that our rules rest on,” said Larry Michael head of food protection at the state Division of Public Health. Michael has been leading the state’s effort to adopt the new rules and he said the last time North Carolina wrote food safety rules was in 1976.
But Michael said the science has shown many of those old rules were out of date, and often, not even effective at protecting people.
“We tweaked (the old code) over the years, but it becomes difficult to deal with from an industry perspective,” said Michael, who described the old rules a ‘patchwork.’
“If you look at this new FDA code, it’s based on science, which, from a public health standpoint, that’s what we want to base all of our regulations on,” he said.
Michael said North Carolina’s done some things right. The restaurant grading system and some of the state’s certification practices have become models for a number of other states.
“The one missing link we’ve had is the lack of an up-to-date science-based food code,” he said.
Following the science costs money
Adhering to that science could take a lot of money for many restaurants.
Chef James Castellow from Zest Restaurant in Raleigh said he didn’t have a problem with most of the new rules, but said that the economy would play into how quickly the new rules will be adopted.
“Our restaurant has been there for 16 years, so we’ll get through it. But it’ll be tough on those places that have opened up in the past few years, bought used equipment,” said Castellow who showed up at the meeting still wearing his chef’s uniform.
In particular, Castellow talked about the cost of replacing refrigerators.
“That can cost a lot, depending on how big your restaurant is. Refrigerators are thousands of dollars,” Castellow said. “We only have one or two. But if you look at a place like Angus Barn, they probably have 50 refrigerators. That can add up to lots of money.”
Refrigerators will have to be set to temperatures below 41 degrees to restrain the growth of bacteria such as listeria, a form of bacteria that sickened thousands nationwide last summer when they ate cantaloupes contaminated with the pathogen. Listeria can cause pregnant women to miscarry.
“My wife just had a baby,” Castellow said. “Listeria was a topic of conversation in our family.”
Restaurant grades will go down
Castellow said his restaurant currently scores 101.5 on the health inspection grading system, but that’s going to change.
Under the old rules, if one manager of a restaurant has a “ServSafe” food handling certification, the facility earns an additional 2 points on it’s annual health inspection. That bonus will go away under the new rules. In addition, unless every manager who works in a facility has the certification, the restaurant loses an additional two points.
“That’s a four point swing,” said Ken Scott, director of quality assurance for Bojangles, which has more than 200 outlets in North Carolina. “That doesn’t transmit to the public the right impression, and it could be taken out of context.”
Scott said restaurants take those annual health inspection scores very seriously.
“That grade impacts the public,” he said. “It can be the best marketing tool, or the worst.”
Scott asked state officials to give restaurants six months, or a year, to come into compliance with the new rules.
But Scott also said a multi-state company such as his thinks the new rules will be a benefit, and he praised the process Michael and other state officials have followed to get the new code in place.
“It would be great if every state was on the same code. You go to South Carolina, hot food has to be 130 degrees. You drive to North Carolina, and it’s 135 degrees. Take a left and go to Tennessee, it’s 140,” Scott said.
“The consistency is good for both the operator and the customer,” he said.
See NC Health Beats for a list of upcoming public hearings and town hall meetings on the new food code.