The advent of several high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks recently has driven food safety and sanitation into the forefront as we approach the new millennium.
This heightened awareness has brought the idea of foodservice manager certification and training into mainstream discussion amongst the regulatory community and the foodservice industry.
The restaurant industry has always recognized the importance of serving safe food to customers and has taken a leading role in food safety training programs for the industry. The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation was established in 1987 and is the industry’s leading resource for training and educational programs. Almost 1,000,000 managers have been certified in food safety through the Foundation’s ServSafe® program alone.
Consistent reinforcement of the educational training received by foodservice managers and employees is as important as basic food safety training. The local environmental health specialist (EHS), commonly known as the health inspector or food safety specialist, is a key component of this reinforcement. We all know that a health inspection is probably not the most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon for a foodservice operator, but trained and knowledgeable inspectors should make it an educational experience while focusing on those aspects most critical to food safety. A local health inspector should be more than an enforcer, according to Paul Severin, owner of four Golden Corral restaurants in Richmond and Roanoke, Virginia. To Severin, Chesterfield County health inspector Frank Scherra, is a valuable consultant. “To me, he’s my ally,” says Severin.
But if certified foodservice managers are looking to their local health inspector for food safety guidance, isn’t it critical that those inspectors be trained and knowledgeable in the area of food safety and sanitation? One might be surprised to learn that most health inspectors are not required to have specialized training to function as a food safety inspector. While some states require their staffs to possess college degrees or professional environmental credentials, such as Registered Environmental Health Specialist (REHS), many states and localities do not, and none require specific food safety
To become a Registered Environmental Health Specialist, inspectors must hold a Bachelor’s degree in environmental health from an accredited university or have two years of experience as an EHS and hold a Bachelor’s degree that includes 30 semester hours in the basic sciences. In addition, inspectors must pass a 300 question multiple choice examination covering all aspects of environmental health, including but not limited to, solid and hazardous waste, vectors, pest and weeds; air quality and noise; wastewater; hazardous materials; and food protection. While this professional credential does reflect the broad depth and knowledge required of general environmental health specialists, it does not concentrate on professional development in the area of food safety and sanitation which is so vital to inspectors who inspect food establishments.
In 1998, recognizing this weakness, the National Environmental Health Association and the National Assessment Institute developed a new examination to accredit food-safety professionals. This credential, Certified Food Safety Professional (CFSP), was designed not only to provide a higher level of recognition and respect for food safety professionals who possess a high degree of food safety knowledge, but more importantly to ensure that competent personnel are working in the area of food safety. The 120 multiple-choice questions test the food safety professional’s knowledge in those aspects most critical to food safety—foodborne illness, inspection of food establishments, enforcement, equipment and utensils, management and personnel, sampling procedures and interpretation of results, physical facilities, cleaning and sanitizing, purchasing, shipping, receiving and storage.
Even though environmental health specialists conducting foodservice inspections may not be required to complete specialized food safety training, the 1993-1999 FDA Model Food Code requires exacting standards concerning the food safety knowledge of foodservice operators. The FDA Model Food Code was first released in 1993 and serves as a set of food safety recommendations provided by the Food and Drug Administration for states and localities to use as a reference when adopting food safety regulations. In fact, many states have already begun to adopt the Code either in its entirety or by reference. The Code is updated and released with revisions every two years. The latest edition was released in February.
According to the Model Code, “...during inspections and upon request the person in charge shall demonstrate...knowledge of foodborne disease prevention, application of the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point principles, and the requirements of this Code.” Operators must be able to respond to inspectors’ questions relating specifically to food safety or through passing an accredited food safety (manager certification) examination such as ServSafe®. As indicated above, however, there is no such requirement of the health professional conducting food safety inspections to have any food safety knowledge at all.
Clearly, detailed knowledge of food safety and sanitation is important not only for foodservice operators but also for the food safety specialists. To accurately assess the knowledge of a foodservice operator and conduct meaningful inspections that focus on those aspects of the operation that are most critical to food safety, it is essential that inspectors possess extensive knowledge in the area of food protection.
The time for the certification of health inspectors in the principles of food safety has come. It is clear that the knowledge gained through certification and training has a positive impact on food safety. Food safety inspectors must be held at least to the same food safety knowledge standards as those foodservice operators whose establishments they inspect. Health inspectors must be able to demonstrate their knowledge in the area of food safety at a minimum by passing a test equivalent to that required of a certified food protection manager (such as the ServSafe® examination) or a superior examination (such as the CFSP examination).
As we move into the new millennium, we face a world of rapidly evolving and emerging pathogens and of hazards found in foods that ten years ago we would have unhesitatingly declared safe. In response to these hazards, the public health community is turning to food safety systems such as Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) and focusing its emphasis on science-based food safety regulations and inspections rather than the the floors, walls and ceilings inspections of the past. The key to the success of these efforts, however, is verifiable state-of-the-art training for those individuals responsible for ensuring minimum public health requirements.
Jennifer Tong is the manager of
Technical Services, National Restaurant Association.