Tulsa County Says Oklahoma Bill May Jeopardize Food Safety Program

January 27, 2009

Legislation that would standardize the health code for restaurants statewide in Oklahoma may jeopardize a Tulsa County program that trains food handlers on how to keep restaurant patrons safe from food-borne disease, according to a county official.

Elizabeth Nutt, director of the county health department’s Consumer Protection Environmental Health Services Division, was surprised by a bill filed by Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa.

“I’m in full support of uniformity. But we’ve already got it, in my opinion,” she said.

Nutt said Crain’s bill may be aimed at inspection inconsistencies. But the department is working to minimize those differences through additional training, she said.

“There is this perception that Tulsa has a different code and we do not,” Nutt said.

The only difference is that the city of Tulsa and most towns within Tulsa County require restaurant employees to take a food safety class and pass a test to get a food handler’s permit, she said.

Crain said some restaurant chains have a hard time complying with various ordinances across the state.

“Oklahoma law right now says nobody can do anything inconsistent with state law,” he said. “Some local municipalities go beyond what current state law is. It adds another layer of bureaucracy, and it is difficult for restaurants to have a clear understanding of what to do.”

Nutt said she fears that Crain’s legislation may threaten the county’s 30-year-old permit program because it does not specifically address food safety training.

“We’ve gotten nationwide recognition for our program. Other cities have modeled their program after ours,” Nutt said.

Crain said his legislation arose out of complaints by restaurant owners hiring in the Tulsa area.

“Tulsa has a reputation that makes it difficult for restaurants. But Tulsa is just an example. Tulsa is not the target,” he said.

More than 300 people in northeastern Oklahoma were sickened, about 70 were hospitalized and one person died after contracting a rare and virulent strain of E. coli last summer. State health officials linked the outbreak to the Country Cottage restaurant in Locust Grove. It is considered the largest E. coli O111 outbreak in the nation.

“We know that foodborne infections, like salmonella, campylobacter or E. coli, can be spread by insufficient hand washing by food handlers or by cross-contamination of ready-to-eat foods,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Kristy Bradley.

Mayes County does not require restaurant employees to get food handling permits. Among other things, such classes teach proper temperatures for foods and stress the importance of hand washing.

The restaurant reopened in November. In addition to a number of new procedures, state health officials required that the restaurant implement a hand-washing monitoring system. Each employee also was required to complete a food safety class, state health officials said.

Crain said the food handling requirement was not the reason behind his legislation.

“If this (food safety training) provides a greater level of safety, why don’t we turn around and make this part of the regulations statewide?” he said.

Crain said members of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association reported having problems in some counties with other health code standards.

“I’m not interested in eliminating what is good for the population. All we’re doing is assuring we don’t have a problem in the future,” he said.

Information from: Tulsa World, www.tulsaworld.com

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