The July 1 deadline for California's 900,000 foodservice workers to earn food-handlers permits is fast approaching.
Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) authored the California Food Handler Card law enacted Jan. 1 to create a statewide standard for safe food-handling practices in California's restaurants and to reduce the potential of foodborne illness. It requires food handlers to undergo basic food-safety training and secure a California Food Handler Card by passing an exam with a score of 70 percent or better.
As the deadline looms, many are wondering why California is pushing the law, how the permits work, if they're easy to obtain, what consequences lie ahead for those who don't comply and if other states will soon follow suit.
The need for standards
The California Legislature's intent in passing the bill was to create a statewide uniform standard for the industry, said Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association.
"Local jurisdictions were looking to create local standards that would have made it really difficult for operators to comply and would have created a patchwork of standards," he said.
Instead, the new law ensures that everyone operates under the same rules, making compliance more manageable.
Because food handlers play such a critical role in food safety, said Mike McCallum, the NRA's chief strategy officer, employees are "required to be trained as a condition of employment, which will assist in driving broad compliance."
How it works
Employees may take the training and test online in English or Spanish for $15 at servsafe.com/foodhandler. Another option is for managers and shift-leaders to register as instructors with the NRA to administer the food-handler training and tests to employees in a classroom-style format.
After earning their permits, workers must provide copies to employers, who are required to maintain files to present during the health-inspection process upon request.
Although the online training makes the law easy to follow, Condie admits that getting the word out to operators about the law has been difficult.
The group has tried to reach them through media stories, advertising, weekly newsletters, its bi-monthly digital magazine, the CRA website and Facebook. It also recently participated in a webinar with the NRA.
"The California Restaurant Association has been educating about the law for months, but operators have to be open to listening and understanding how it impacts their business," Condie said.
Avoiding false permits
Only three companies may issue valid California Food Handler cards at this time. They are the NRA (ServSafe California Food Handler Program), Prometrics and National Registry.
"We have had operators tell us that they have received cards from companies other than the three above and they are confused," Condie said. “We’ve heard that health inspectors have directed operators to inform those employees that they hold non-compliant cards and they need to take corrective action."
If employers are found out of compliance they will most likely face deductions during the health-inspection process, but each local jurisdiction will determine the penalty for non-compliance, Condie said.
The California Conference of Department of Environmental Health recently issued guidelines recommending local enforcement agencies educate and notify restaurants of the law until Jan. 1 in order to allow additional time for restaurants to comply with the new law.
"Many enforcement agencies will wait to issue penalties until the new year, instead spending the rest of 2011 educating restaurants during health inspections," Condie said. "But it's still crucial that restaurant operators know about that law, work to comply by July 1 and have a plan in place to prepare their staff."
Following California's lead
Although California isn't the first state to require such food-handling permits – Oregon, Washington, Texas, Arizona and Florida have similar laws in place – it often sets trends since it has the largest number of foodservice workers in the country.
"We are already seeing some states looking to follow California's lead, particularly as they look to create consistency to basic training in safe food handling practices across multiple jurisdictions," McCallum said.
Photo provided by leighblackall.