William L. Hatfield, LEHP, PG, director of Environmental Health for the Boone County Department of Public Health in Rockford, Illinois, writes in this opinion piece that the intent of the public health codes is to prevent illness and injury to the public through preventative actions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. Understandably, a large part of state and local codes involves the food industry.
In the food industry, inspections of food facilities, food production/storage and food personnel have been the preventative actions most beneficial to the public health. The inspections are intended to be conducted across the board whenever food is being offered to the general public regardless of age, income, intent of the operation or the political viewpoint of the operator.
There has been a lot of publicity recently involving a young person being required to comply with existing food codes to sell cupcakes. Rather than the focus being on the potential danger to the public of food products, the discussion became the age of the operator, entrepreneurship and government regulation.
– The age of the operator is irrelevant. The primary issue remains public health and safety; that is why the codes require a permit, which reimburses the taxpayer for inspection costs. If this young entrepreneur had wanted to operate a taxi service, no one would question the fact that a driver’s license would be necessary and that driving laws would have to be followed. That’s because everyone recognizes the potential danger to the public when it comes to traffic safety.
On the other hand, the general public is not as aware of the dangers involved in food production. Were these cupcakes prepared on a kitchen counter where the baby is changed, the cat is allowed to jump up and the parakeet flies overhead? Were eggs used in the recipe and were they candled grade “A” eggs or from the neighbors chickens? Were proper hygiene practices followed? Were proper techniques utilized to protect from cross-contamination of allergens, etc. Failure to ensure that these types of potential hazards are addressed can cause consumers to be exposed to foodborne illnesses, hospitalization and death.
– Entrepreneurship should be encouraged. However, part of being an entrepreneur is learning what the rules are concerning your selection of products or services. There are many, many products that can be sold with no potential danger to the public and would not require inspections and inspection-related permits. An individual could sell pencils, homemade craft products or offer a personal service such as lawn mowing, etc. Even with these products and services, it’s a good idea to check with local authorities to determine if there are rules to observe.
– Government regulation is not the issue. Most regulations are put into place because they have a decided impact upon public health or safety. The state food code, which came into effect in 1975, was determined to be necessary by our elected legislators to ensure that food being offered to the general public meets a minimum standard for wholesomeness and sanitation.
Regulatory exemptions are not the answer. Carving out exceptions to a long-standing law that was based upon recognized sanitation practices that protect the public from foodborne illnesses accomplishes nothing. In fact, each time an exemption is allowed, the overall protection intended by the original law is weakened. As a result, the code becomes unnecessarily convoluted and complex to the point that both the public and enforcement agencies are confused. Enforcement then is perceived to be selective, which is opposed to the intent of the original law.
The real solution to this type of issue is to remain focused upon the original intent of the legislation and only make those changes that are in harmony with that intent. If evidence and justification exists to deem cupcakes, for instance, to be nonhazardous and constitute no risk to the public, that product should be exempted so that anyone is able to produce and sell them anywhere at any time without regulatory oversight.