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.
The law also stipulates that one training course must be available to all employees at a cost of no more than $15 to ensure affordability and prevent hardship. Once the $15 option is established, employees may opt for subsequent training courses that may cost more. Employers are not required to pay for any time and expense incurred by employees while participating in training and testing unless a food facility provides in-house training and testing during normal working hours.
The law also requires that all employees have access to an examination costing no more than $60, including the certificate. Again, employees can choose to take subsequent examinations, which may be more expensive, from other companies. The assessment exam must consist of at least 40 questions, and a minimum score of 70 percent will be required for employees to receive the certificate/food handler card. The exam may be taken online or at an approved facility. Unlike the current ANSI/CFP certified food manager online or manual examinations, which require that the applicant be proctored at an approved testing center, the new law for handlers does not require proctoring.
The newly formed SB 602 workgroup has not yet resolved the important issue of who will be approved as trainers.
Local enforcement officials will be responsible for ensuring that food facilities meet their obligations under the law, including making sure that employees possess a valid food handler card and that the food facility is maintaining records that can be provided to local enforcement officers upon request. Failure to comply may result in administrative action that includes but is not limited to issuance of an infraction. Before implementation of SB 602 is possible, many clarifications are needed, especially with regard to enforcement.
The law exempts some food handlers but generally applies to all food facilities with the exception of those that are temporary. Individuals already holding a valid manager’s food safety certification are exempt. Current facilities and handlers exempt from the new law include:
- Food handlers with current cards from Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties;
- Food facilities with collective bargaining agreements with their food handlers; and
- Food handlers employed by certified farmers markets; commissaries; grocery stores, except for separately owned food facilities; licensed health care facilities; mobile support units; public and private school cafeterias; restricted food service facilities; and retail stores where a majority of sales are from a pharmacy.
The Ultimate Goal
Proactive prevention training is the key to reducing foodborne illnesses. It can be accomplished by minimizing the foodborne illness risk factors in a food facility. The ultimate responsibility to produce and process safe foods lies with the management and employees. Regulatory authorities generally only inspect a food facility several times a year, and each inspection provides only a snapshot of the facility at the time of inspection. Without proper and timely training, food facility operators may commit food safety errors that could lead to foodborne illness.
Similar programs have been implemented in Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. A recent study of Florida’s program found that it lowered cases of foodborne illnesses by an average of 7% a year, a total of 79% since that program’s inception 10 years ago.
Four key concepts of food safety training that the California law is intended to address include the following:
- Hands are a critical transmitter of disease.
- High temperature kills. The final cook temperature is your critical control point.
- It is critical to eliminate cross contamination, especially from hands, equipment, dripping foods, and work surfaces.
- It is vital to minimize exposure to the temperature danger zone (41 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit), a concept that relates to short preparation times, monitored cooling, and thawing foods.
Improved training and education is critical, because history has proven that many food facilities that have received approved food safety training still failed to pass inspection and were forced to close. While the current training proposals only address English- and Spanish-speaking food handlers, some experts assert that training and education must be adapted to more food handlers’ languages and cultures—and that the availability of additional languages for this exam must therefore be addressed. Major barriers to learning and practicing food safety are literacy, cultural differences, socioeconomic standards, diverse skill levels, motivation of employees, lack of interest, and operators’ lack of time and feedback. Despite knowledge of food safety practices, many food handlers do not practice food safety behaviors regularly. Management must emphasize food safety as a priority even when burdened with more pressing tasks. Effective food safety instructors will be important to the food handling card-training program’s success.