County takes over food inspections
Garfield County has officially taken the reigns from the state on food safety inspections.
For more than a year the county had been discussing creating its own food safety program as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has been gradually getting out of the business.
The county began considering in earnest how to implement its own food safety program last year, and from September through December the state was helping train the county’s new inspectors, with help from Eagle County, Mesa County and Aspen.
“Locally run programs can minimize travel expenses, and local inspectors have a better sense for the community’s needs,” said Natalie Tsevdos, one of the program’s environmental health specialists. “In addition, local inspectors build relationships with business owners, which is not only time-saving, but can also help restaurants obtain information easier. If there was an emergency, such as a food-borne illness outbreak, local programs offer a faster response time.”
Recent conflict at the state level has also held up some food inspections as state legislators negotiated with the restaurant lobby over inspection fee increases and food safety grades.
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Before Garfield County took full control of food safety, the state had contracted Mesa County’s food inspectors to cover the western portion of Garfield County while the state still covered the eastern side.
Garfield County’s program covers 35 schools, 43 child-care centers and 345 retail food establishments, said Tsevdos. The child-care category includes day cares, preschools, after-school programs and camps. Retail food establishments include restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, guest ranches, gas stations, school kitchens and bars.
Tsevdos says the number of child-care centers and retail food establishments in Garfield County continues to grow.
When commissioners were first considering taking on food safety last year, Commissioner Mike Samson pointed out that many schools were being inspected only once every three years.
“Inspection frequency is based on food-borne illness risk,” Tsevdos wrote in a news release.
Under the county’s program, full-service restaurants and grocery stores generally get two unannounced inspections each year.
“Convenience stores, hotels, coffee shops, schools and mobile units are inspected once a year. Bars that have very limited food service (such as ice and snacks) are inspected once every two years,” she said.
The inspectors will also conduct complaint-driven investigations if they hear about unsanitary conditions or if there’s evidence that a food-borne illness has come from a particular establishment.
“It can be difficult to determine if a particular meal caused illness. People instinctively target the last thing they ate,” Tsevdos wrote.
Symptoms of food poisoning may show up in a few hours, but could take as long as 50 days.
People often don’t go to the doctor, where useful samples could be taken.
“And the onset of symptoms varies greatly between different pathogens and different people. In most cases, by the time symptoms are identified, the food suspected of causing illness is gone,” according to Tsevdos.
So to be proactive, the new program offers quarterly classes covering retail food regulations. These classes are held on a rotating basis in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Rifle and are also available in Spanish.
“Initial response to professional education programs for restaurateurs has been strong locally, with the first class attracting 75 participants from 20 different restaurants,” according to a county press release.
But the program’s courses are not mandatory.
“There are no food safety certification requirements for food workers in the state of Colorado,” wrote Tsevdos. “However, most restaurants have opted for some form of training in addition to attending GCPH’s classes. Most chain restaurants impose stricter requirements than the health department; their employees must have current food manager or food handler certifications through ServSafe and they have additional third party food safety audits and inspections. Food safety is also a requirement in most culinary school programs and to operate as a Cottage Foods producer.”
“We are only in a restaurant for three hours a year,” she wrote. “The rest of the time it is up to the business to practice safe food handling. So, we want to be the best resource we can be.”
One service gap the county’s program will cover that the state left out is special events, such as festivals and farmers markets.
Local public health departments “can more effectively regulate temporary events,” and complete preoperational inspections for new restaurants before they open, wrote Tsevdos.
In addition to the environmental health manager, the county’s food safety program now has two inspectors and one administrative assistant.
“As we know, this is a money loser. There’s no one in the state really that’s breaking even or making money,” Yvonne Long, Garfield County public health director, told commissioners in discussions about the new program last year.
“It is not a revenue generator, but a service and a safety issue that you have to pay for,” Commissioner John Martin responded.
Prior to the program being implemented, Josh Williams, county environmental health manager, said its budget would be about $178,000. However, the state would reimburse $93,000, leaving the county to pay $85,000.
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