Friday | December 15, 2017
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Before you take a bite at restaurants …

Next month, Hawaii Island’s 1,400 restaurants and other establishments serving food will begin being issued new food safety inspection placards, making it easier for customers to decide where they want to eat.

The placards are color-coded and based on traffic signals, with green meaning the restaurant passed its inspection, yellow meaning the establishment passed on the condition that it correct violations before another inspection within 72 hours, and red meaning it has been closed and its health permit has been temporarily suspended.

The overhaul of Hawaii’s Food Safety Program went into effect on Feb. 24, but inspections have been put on hold, except for new businesses and businesses which have received complaints, until the state has completed an education campaign to inform business owners about the new law. It was modeled on the successful system put in place by Sacramento County, California, the nationwide winner of the 2008 Samuel J. Crumbine Consumer Protection Award for Excellence in Food Protection.

“We were looking at world-class programs, and I basically just copied their system,” said Peter Oshiro, manager of the Sanitation Branch of the state Department of Health’s Environmental Health Division.

In years past, restaurant inspections suffered because the food safety program was not allowed to reinvest health permit fees collected from restaurants back into its operations, he said.

“We wanted to change Hawaii statutes to recapture all our permit fees from restaurants,” he said.

While the state was collecting about $450,000 a year in permit fees, that money could only be spent on health eduation programs, and whatever wasn’t spent went back into the state’s general fund. New legislation signed in 2010 now allows the health department to put the money from fees back into the program for staffing and other expenses, thereby increasing the number of times establishments are inspected, Oshiro said.

The previous system required inspectors to return two, three or even four times to reinspect a location to issue a grade, and that seriously cut into how often every restaurant on the island was being inspected, he explained.

“We were wasting a lot of time on follow-up inspections,” he said. “With the new system, restaurants are calling us to come back out when they’ve made the corrections. They want to get that green card. … We estimate a 75-80 percent reduction in follow-ups.”

That’s an important savings in time when one considers that there are only four inspectors, known as sanitarians, in East Hawaii, and four in West Hawaii, he said.

Another change in the system that should increase efficiency is a three-category system mandating how often establishments should be inspected. Businesses that deal with a lot of raw materials in their food preparations have the highest risk of endangering customer safety, so they will be inspected two to three times a year, Oshiro said. Restaurants in category two, which are mainly fastfood restaurants taking pre-packaged materials directly from the refrigerator to cook will be inspected twice a year. And category three food service establishments, which mostly serve single items which are reheated, such as cookies at the mall, would need to be inspected only once a year.

“It allows us to focus on the areas with the most risk,” Oshiro said.

In addition to the procedures surrounding inspections, health regulations have also been updated, and the health department is currently working to contact restaurants on the island to make sure they are fully aware of the changes, Oshiro said.

Among the biggest changes to the regulations is a requirement that no ready-to-eat food may be touched by bare hands. Food preparers will have to handle food with gloves or utensils once it has finished cooking, Oshiro said.

A similar regulation in California was repealed by the state legislature last month after heavy backlash from business owners. But Oshiro said he felt that was the wrong decision to make.

“We think they’re bending too much to political pressure,” he said. “… The reason why we did this is because the No. 1 cause of food-borne illness is the noro virus, which employees … pass on if they don’t wash their hands.”

Spencer Oliver, general manager of the Hilo Yacht Club, said Monday that he believes the new regulations and inspection procedures will result in making Hilo-area restaurants safer for their customers. But, he also worried that it could spell trouble for some eateries, including many of the mom-and-pop restaurants in town.

“My feeling is that some of these restaurants in Hilo are going to be having a really difficult time,” he said. “… As for the Yacht Club, we’re fully prepared to comply with it. We have an executive chef who is well versed on these rules from working on the mainland, and he’s operated in states that have adopted these standards. … The larger establishments may have the resources and the knowledge to do it, but it will certainly add to the cost of doing business.”

For instance, Oliver said, one new requirement calls for restaurants to designate one employee during each shift as a safety supervisor, and that person must be fully versed in the food safety regulations. Not only will those employees have to be trained, but they will likely have to be compensated, as they are being asked to take on more responsibility, he said.

“If you’re a mom and pop owner, and you have to run to the store or something, there has to be somebody still there who is fully versed,” he said. “For instance, we do a breakfast once a week and then we do a weekend snack bar. That doesn’t require highly skilled workers, just a grill cook. Now, though, we have to make sure he’s fully versed in all health department rules. We’ll have to educate him and pay him more. That’s something we’re willing to absorb, but we’re a private club and we have the means to do that.”

As for how long eateries on Hawaii Island have to prepare before they may find sanitarians knocking at their door to do a surprise inspection, Oshiro couldn’t say for sure. He expects the inspections to kick off some time in August, but the exact time will depend on when officials feel the public has been properly notified.

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