North Carolina food regs to be in line with food code; rules built on science are good

My initiation into the real world of food production was in the vegetable production industry. As a 22-year-old naive graduate student Doug sent me out to Leamington Ontario (that’s in Canada) with Amber Bailey, to see whether I could work with greenhouse producers on keeping their wash water and employee’s hands clean. That trip turned into a MSc project and I spent three years working with almost 200 farmers on risk-reduction practices as I took product and water samples.

On one of those visits a farmer wanted to talk about food safety regulations, especially whether farms would ever see the type of regulation restaurants do. He said that a law might help provide some uniformity to how farmers managed risk and could provide a level playing field (because even in 2002 they were seeing inconsistent audits/auditors) but he finished by saying something like, "I don’t really want to be regulated like restaurants, with inspectors who have never been on a farm sniffing around here looking for problems."

My experience on the farms (and then in restaurants) also taught me that getting someone to change what they do is a lot easier if you can describe the evidence behind the new practice. Telling folks about outbreaks and data in a compelling way matters.

The folks I encounter regardless of sector, still ask a lot of questions about the whys behind a particular rule or guidance.

Later this year, according to Thomas Goldsmith of the News & Observer, North Carolina will be adopting the FDA Model Food Code by reference – which means the state’s food service rules will be based on the best available science, will update automatically with subsequent versions of the code.

A useful food safety regulation has a nod to risk calculations (probability and consequences) and is built on some sort of evidence (whether that be strong outbreak investigation data or laboratory data). The FDA model food code, for the most part, fits this.

The Model Food Code also provides the best example of how to systematically evaluate the times, temperatures and practices and make recommendations for revision when new information comes up (the biannual Conference for Food Protection provides this nice framework).

Cold food will have to be kept colder. Restaurant employees who have certain symptoms won’t be allowed to work. And cooks won’t touch ready-to-eat food with bare hands, but only with gloves, deli paper or tongs.

These are just a few of the changes that will accompany North Carolina’s expected adoption of federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines that will replace a much-amended set of regulations dating from 1976, state and local officials said.

Developed by the FDA in collaboration with scientists, academics, industry representatives and physicians, the Food Code is revised every four years based on the most up-to-date science available, said Larry Michael, head of the food protection program at the state division.

“The approach in the past involved an endless process of revising the rules and standards,” Michael said. “This proved to be inefficient.

A 2010 survey in Wake County reinforced the need for new guidelines, said Andre Pierce, environmental health and safety director for county environmental services. About 90 percent of restaurants and other food-service places didn’t have the kinds of policies to keep sick workers home that are included in the federal code.

Physical conditions that rule out working in food service are diarrhea, vomiting, sore throat with fever, jaundice and lesions with pus.
Some provisions, such as keeping cold food at 41 degrees instead of 45 degrees, will be phased in to give restaurants time to comply. The code also will require that every establishment have a certified food-safety manager on site at all times.

The state estimates that compliance will cost the food service industry $5.5 million during the first four years but that restaurants and other establishments will realize benefits that can’t be quantified from not making people sick. Industry figures state that an outbreak of foodborne illness costs a restaurant an average of $75,000.

Meanwhile, during the same four-year period, the state is expected to save $6 million compared to current costs of dealing with such outbreaks.

Given repeated, widely publicized incidents of foodborne illness, many restaurants already follow the provisions of the FDA code, said Alyssa Barkley, director of health and safety for the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. “I have been at the table for a couple of years throughout this process,” said Barkley, whose background is in public health. “We have been at the table making sure that the rules that are adopted aren’t going to be a major burden on businesses.”

This entry was posted in Food Safety Policy and tagged , by Ben Chapman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.