Local restaurants are still adapting to the new North Carolina food safety regulations put into place last fall as they prepare for other regulations yet to begin.
Lynn Lathan, environmental supervisor for the Food and Facilities Sanitation Program of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said the department has been putting in extra effort to help restaurants adapt to the changes, the majority of which took effect Sept. 1, 2012. The biggest changes costing local eateries points off their health inspection scores involve date-marking food and not using bare hands to handle ready-to-eat foods.
Lathan said date marking errors likely stem from a lack of knowledge about how the process works, as well as which foods are potentially hazardous. Restaurants are now required to label the foods prepared or opened and kept for more than 24 hours with either the date the food item was opened or prepared or the last date it can be used or sold.
“Probably one of the things that is the most confusing for people to understand is date marking for potentially hazardous foods,” she said. “Some people may not quite understand what you’re looking for as far as what foods (are potentially hazardous). In light of all the outbreaks, especially over (the) last couple years, you have foods like spinach and lettuce that weren’t looked at before as being potentially hazardous, and you have to date mark that.”
Date-marking regulations allow restaurants to hold potentially hazardous foods for seven days if they’re stored at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. If the foods are stored at 42 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, they can only be kept for four days.
Restaurants are prohibited to store potentially hazardous foods at a temperature higher than 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not a new regulation, Lathan said. But soon, 41 degrees Fahrenheit will be the maximum temperature for storing these foods. Lathan said the 41-degree rule will be phased in over a six-year period.
The new “no bare-hand contact” rule forbids employees from touching ready-to-eat food with their bare hands and must instead use tongs, scoops, deli paper or single-use gloves, and must wash their hands before using any of these.
Previously, employees were required to wash their hands with soap or hand sanitizer before touching the food. But Lathan said hand washing doesn’t prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses.
“The no bare hand contact thing is easy for people to forget,” she said. “(Employees) always washed their hands before. They made sure they were clean, especially if they handled something raw or that could cross contaminate. But hand washing doesn’t sterilize your hands.”
Some restaurants, like Kristopher’s in Matthews, are taking proactive measures to get ready for the upcoming changes. Kristopher Johnson, the restaurant’s owner, is currently installing heaters underneath restroom sinks to meet the new regulation that requires water in these sinks to reach a temperature of at least of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Johnson also recently replaced plastic storage pans with stainless steel pans in order to maintain a colder temperature so the restaurant will be prepared when the 41-degrees-or-under requirement is phased in.
“The main thing they’re looking at now is temperatures, with the hot water and cooling,” Johnson said. “The rules have changed drastically since 1988, which was the year Kristopher’s opened, and they’re still changing, (but) we’ve had a health (department representative) who’s been helpful with the transition.”
Although she couldn’t provide statistics, Lathan said the Mecklenburg County Health Department is trying to help guide restaurants through the changes, not just penalize them with points off.
For example, depending on how serious the violation is, an inspector may make general comments on an issue rather than taking points off. The department also returns for a re-inspection if a restaurant scores low and requests to be re-evaluated.
“We don’t want their scores dropped, and neither do they, but we do want compliance,” Lathan said. “Public health is what we’re after.”
Restaurant-goers may have seen a slight dip in restaurant scores since September, as the health department no longer awards two bonus points if a person in charge has completed a food safety program within the past two years. And starting Jan. 1, 2014, restaurants must have at least one food safety-certified person in charge on duty at all times or two points will be taken off their score.
“We’re hoping it won’t be an issue, because the training is out there,” Lathan said. “People just have to do it.”
Lathan encourages people to visit county health departments’ websites regularly to review details of restaurant inspections, especially if they have a question about a restaurant’s score. Complaints to prompt an inspection also can be submitted online.
To view health inspection details for restaurants in Matthews and Mint Hill, go to http://Mecklenburg.digitalhealthdepartment.com.