Summit County restaurants to see changes to food safety enforcement
FRISCO — During the recent legislative session, the state made some significant changes to how local authorities enforce food safety in restaurants and other retail food establishments.
As part of the changes, the state is now considering a new way to do food inspection evaluations that will look at the overall safety of a food establishment, rather than focusing on individual violations.
The actual enforcement procedure will be developed by Jan. 1 with input from stakeholders, including restaurant associations, local authorities and consumer groups.
The law, which was signed by Gov. Jared Polis in February, rewrites the way food safety is enforced in the state. The main proposed change to food safety enforcement is the way violations are addressed and rectified, with individual violations no longer being considered in a vacuum.
Currently, food establishments can rectify the individual violation for follow-up inspections, with no long-term consequences if the violation occurs again after being previously rectified.
Summit County director of environmental health Dan Hendershott said this creates a “yo-yo” situation with retail food businesses constantly going in and out of compliance with no government recourse.
With the proposed changes, Hendershott told the Summit Board of County Commissioners this week, inspectors will look for and score individual violations cumulatively over the course of a year, with each violation scoring a certain number of “points” based on how egregious the violation is.
For example, Hendershott said, a broken floor tile in a kitchen — which can become a breeding ground for listeria and other bacteria over time — might be considered a relatively minor violation of one or two points. On the other hand, more concerning safety violations such as employees not washing hands or hot food holding temperatures below the 135 degree minimum could rack up 20 points or more.
Inspectors might have some discretion on scoring violations or allowing certain violations be fixed on the spot, without the usual requirement of a follow-up inspection in 15 days or six months.
“Points represent risk; more points are bad,” Hendershott told the commissioners. “The more points you get, the worse off you are. You don’t want to be proud of getting 100 points in an inspection. That’s getting into failing status. But only getting 20 is something to be proud of.”
Hendershott did not go into specifics on the thresholds for action as they have not been finalized, but the new law specifically states that if a single violation poses an “imminent health hazard” to the public on its own, the business might have its license suspended or revoked until it gets back into compliance.
“Imminent health hazard” includes an emergency such as a fire, flood, extended interruption of electrical or water service, sewage backup, misuse of poisonous or toxic materials, onset of an apparent food-borne illness outbreak, grossly unsanitary occurrence or condition, or other circumstance that could endanger public health.
Under the new regimen, food establishments will be given two chances to rectify failing violations with follow-up inspections before civil penalty fines and license revocation become an option for the overseeing regulatory agency.
After the proposed changes for food safety enforcement are finalized by the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the new system will go into effect Jan. 1. In the meantime, the county will continue with the current system of assessing and rectifying individual violations as they occur.
The county’s environmental health department also has implemented an informal hearing system, where owners or managers of retail food outlets that fail inspection and a subsequent follow-up inspection are invited to sit down and hash things out with environmental health officials.
During the meeting, the county relays specific concerns to the restaurant’s upper management so there is no room for misinterpretation, and then the owner or manager is given more time for another inspection. At that point, the hammer of enforcement is very much at the ready if violations are not rectified.
Hendershott said about 80% of the county’s 430 food establishments are usually in compliance with food safety and get inspections at least once a year, while up to 20% require follow-up inspections for compliance.
Hendershott said his department does about 12 to 15 informal hearings with business owners each year for repeated failed inspections. He said he has had to hold only one license suspension hearing for repeated lack of compliance in the 15 years he’s been at Summit’s environmental health department. In that case, the restaurant was able to get back into compliance and retained its license.
Hendershott acknowledged the environmental health department does not have the means or staff to remove 100% of the risk for consumers at retail food businesses, but it certainly can mitigate and minimize it.
“That goes back to our ability to manage risk, not eliminate every ounce of it,” Hendershott said. “If we had to inspect every establishment every single day, we’d be more effective, but that’s not really achievable, and some would argue unnecessary.”
To comment on the proposed changes to food safety enforcement, contact Summit County’s environmental health department at 970-668-4070 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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