Effective July 1, California will require all employees who handle food in restaurants to earn a California Food Handlers Card. This legislation, modeled on successful programs in other states, will affect more than 1.4 million food industry jobs.
Senate Bill 602, sponsored by state Sen. Alex Padilla and signed into law in September by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is intended to benefit food facilities and their employees, boost consumer confidence, and significantly improve food safety. Similar programs have been successfully implemented in Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. A recent study of a similar program in Florida found that it lowered cases of foodborne illnesses by an average of 7% per year, a total of 79% since the program’s inception 10 years ago.
Local food safety regulatory authorities will be responsible for ensuring that food facilities meet their obligations under the law. This will include ensuring that employees possess a valid food handler card and that records are being maintained and are available to regulatory authorities upon request. The expansion of certification to all food handlers may have national implications, because other states may enact similar legislation. The national trend among regulatory agencies is to require that each retail food facility employ at least one certified food safety manager.
The California Restaurant Association (CRA) hailed the bill as “lawmaking at its best, as all stakeholders were at the table working toward a shared goal of ensuring food safety.”
When the law goes into effect, all California food facility employees who handle food will be required to obtain a California Food Handlers Card after training for and passing a test within 30 days of hire, or no later than July 1 for current employees. With more than 90,000 food and beverage facilities operating in California, the CRA estimates that food and drink sales reached an estimated $58 billion in 2010. SB 602 requires that all food facility employees be trained and certified in proper food handling practices, an aggressive effort to reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses and hospitalizations in the state.
The food handler certification examination will test the handler’s knowledge of CDC food safety risk factors such as:
- Foodborne illness principles, including definitions;
- The relationship between time and temperature in foodborne illnesses;
- The relationship between personal hygiene and food safety;
- Methods of preventing food contamination in all stages of food handling;
- Procedures for cleaning and sanitizing equipment and utensils;
- Problems and solutions for facility and equipment design, layout, and construction; and
- Problems and solutions associated with temperature control, cross contamination, housekeeping, and maintenance.
Training, Exemptions, and Enforcement
The food handler law requires workers to participate in a training course and pass an examination to be certified. The law stipulates that companies that are certified in other states and adhere to the 2001 food code will be allowed to run their own in-house training programs; such companies must provide satisfactory evidence to the local enforcement officer of an approved out-of-state training program. Yum Brands and Disney are examples of food facilities that may qualify for in-house training by virtue of their adherence to these provisions. The new law stipulates that any in-house training course and examination must be designed to be completed in approximately 2½ hours during normal working hours and at no cost to employees. Employees may opt to take the training through an approved association or third party program, however.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in December 2010 that approximately 70% of all foodborne disease is spread by direct or indirect contact with infected individuals. The report further states that 3,037 people die each year from eating tainted food served at food facilities nationwide; more than 128,000 are hospitalized, and 47.8 million become ill annually from food facility contamination. The CDC reports that one in six Americans gets sick from food every year. Salmonella was found to be the leading cause of foodborne illness, causing 28% of the deaths and 35% of the hospitalizations. From a fiscal loss standpoint, that translates to $152 billion per year, according to a report from the National Restaurant Association.