Arizona Restaurants Self-Police Food Safety

August 2, 2011

A Maricopa County pilot program is giving some restaurants more responsibility for their own food safety and cutting back on the number of full inspections of those eateries.

County officials say the program is getting into full swing and is designed to encourage a cooperative approach to food safety and allow the county to focus its resources on policing higher-risk establishments.

The program unofficially went into effect in February and is voluntary. Restaurants that sign on will have more of an onus to ensure their workers are following food-safety policies and procedures.

Restaurant owners in the program are required to develop safe food-handling policies that meet federal standards and will be required to train their staff members and monitor their performance on their own.

The county conducts unannounced inspections of every restaurant two to four times a year, ensuring that they are meeting health-code requirements. For example, inspectors insert thermometers into various foods and containers to ensure they are kept at proper temperatures.

For restaurants enrolled in the new program, inspections still will be unannounced. But every other inspection will not be a full inspection, but a “verification visit” where the inspector determines whether the restaurant is implementing its own policies.

For example, an inspector would watch restaurant workers measure food temperatures to be sure they are properly trained to follow the health codes and that they check their own performance regularly.

Depending on how effective and popular it proves to be, the program could eventually become mandatory, County Environmental Services Director John Kolman said.

The new approach to regulating restaurants may be reflective of a larger trend in which local governments give more control to those being regulated, national food-safety experts said. But at least some critics think it might be going too far.

The concept of industries playing a larger role in their own regulation is not new, said Sandra Shire, director of Arizona State University’s masters program in regulatory science and health safety. There is a growing understanding that it is in restaurants’ best interest to follow the rules, she said.

The county’s program gives restaurants an “opportunity to become more familiar with the regulations and to continue to meet the challenge of providing excellent food safety to their customers,” Shire told The Arizona Republic.

“It is not unusual to have industries self-regulate,” said Shire, who worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for 15 years. “As long as restaurants understand and meet the food-code standards, the public-health impact should be limited.”

Kolman said the program’s design should encourage restaurant operators to “take a little more responsibility for their food operations.”

“In turn, we can shorten our inspection times. And that’s both a good thing for the industry and for us,” Kolman said. “The food industry gets to not have to take a food inspector around all the time, and in turn, it could lower fees” that restaurants pay for inspections.

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