Web Exclusive | September 2010 | By Jordan Melnick

Cali’s Newest Rule May Catch On

A food safety bill passed by the State Senate could affect restaurant employees and potentially the rest of the country in the future.

The California Senate passed a bill earlier this month that would require all restaurant employees to be trained and certified in safe food-handling practices. If signed into law, the bill could eventually affect the restaurant industry nationwide. 

Senate Bill 602 comes from Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who also crafted a 2008 law requiring California restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to post calorie information on their menus and indoor menuboards. The most recent bill awaits Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature to become law, something the California Restaurant Association says might not happen.

The bill passed the senate on a bipartisan vote of 30-1. It “seeks to reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses and hospitalizations in California by educating restaurant employees about proper food handling,” according to a press release issued by Sen. Padilla. 

The bill would require employees to get a certified food-handler card within 30 days of being hired. The card would be valid across the state and expire after three years. To ease the process, the bill requires at least one accredited food-safety-certification exam to be offered online. 

The bill is modeled after similar programs in San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernadino counties, which, the Padilla press release says, have reported a 79 percent reduction in food-borne-illness outbreaks since implementation. 

San Diego County’s program started in the 1980s in response to a major Hepatitis A outbreak in a food facility, says Liz Pozzebon, assistant director of the county’s Department of Environmental Health. While she can’t verify the 79 percent reduction cited by Sen. Padilla, she says the program is a “very positive component in reducing major food-safety violations.”

As a model for the pending statewide legislation, the San Diego program gives a sense of how Padilla’s bill might affect restaurants. Under the program, all restaurant employees must get training in safe food handling from an accredited source, and each restaurant has a more highly trained manager who reinforces food-safety practices.

Now more than two decades old, the San Diego program has not overly burdened the county’s restaurants, Pozzebon says. In fact, it has helped them limit the risk of food-borne-illness outbreaks that can hurt, or even kill, an eatery’s reputation. 

“It’s very important to have the basics in place for all food handlers,” she says. “The most successful restaurants that have the best food-safety track records have very good procedures, very good training, and certified food-safety managers.”

Existing California law requires restaurants to have only one employee who is certified in safe food-handling practices. The Padilla bill seeks to introduce a version of the San Diego county standard across the state. 

“Every person who comes in contact with food should have some food-handling education,” the bill says.

In a sign that California’s restaurants are on board, the state restaurant association worked with Padilla to write the legislation. 

“There was a recognition that something like this was on the horizon,” says California Restaurant Association spokesman Daniel Conway. “It’s been discussed for a number of years and this was an opportunity for us to approach it proactively.”

Since the bill would require restaurants to keep records on their employees’ certification status, the law would create an extra operational burden. But, Conway says, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. 

The bill would require employees to get a certified food-handler card within 30 days of being hired.

“Greater food safety obviously sends a positive message to consumers,” he says. “It reminds them, frankly, that that is a top priority for our industry.”

Conway also touted the advantages of a statewide standard over a system in which every county makes its own rules, a scheme that would hinder chains with locations scattered across the state. 

“What we didn’t want was a patchwork of local ordinances, where there was one compliance process in this county and another in a different county,” he says. “Particularly from an employee’s perspective, [the certification card] is something you can use” statewide.

Finally, Conway says the bill could have broader “societal benefits.” Since so many people work in the restaurant industry at some point in their lives, the requirement to be trained and certified could increase food-safety awareness in the general public.

Of course, any benefit or drawback will remain hypothetical unless Gov. Schwarzenegger signs the bill. With California’s budget long overdue, the governor, who is in his last year of office, may put the Padilla bill on the backburner. 

“We’re confident that this is the best bill that the governor can see on this issue,” Conway says. But, he adds, “this is the Wild West and we don’t want to take anything for granted.”

If it does pass, the bill could serve as a model nationwide, especially considering California’s status as a bellwether state. Other food-safety policies, such as menu labeling and the public display of sanitation grades, ultimately took root outside of the states in which they were first implemented.  

“If it works well for California and is not seen as too great a burden, it could spread to other states,” says David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Good ideas get hatched at the state level.”