New rules proposed for state food handlers

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2005

The state has drafted new rules requiring more food safety training for food workers as well as labeling of farmed versus wild native fish at Alaska restaurants and food markets.

The rules, up for public comment until March 15, are a major revision to the Alaska Food Code, putting more responsibility for food safety on private operators.

In a related step, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has changed its approach to restaurant inspections.

"The biggest change is how they are grading everyone," said Reecia Wilson, co-owner of Juneau's Hangar on the Wharf Restaurant. For example, the state used to publish food inspection scores for restaurants in newspapers.

"Now, we don't even get a grade," said Wilson, who recently went through one of the department's new inspections and was pleased with the new format. "Instead, we have a page and a half of things that we need to work on," she said.

A state regulator said the changes to the inspection program were prompted by state budget cuts. The new labeling requirement for salmon, halibut and sablefish originated with a legislative bill sponsored by Alaska Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

"The (food safety) program received a cut a few years ago," said Kristin Ryan, the department's director of environmental health. "We realized we would never have sufficient funding to inspect restaurants regularly ... the state is too vast," she said.

The new rules require all managers at Alaska food establishments to receive national accreditation as food safety managers. All employees who touch food would need to take a food safety test. Among numerous other rule changes, the companies would also have to enact their own standard operating procedures for food safety.

The next training in Juneau regarding the proposed rules will be offered by the Department of Environmental Conservation on Jan. 28 at the department's office at 410 Willoughby St.

Restaurants and food markets would have a year to comply with the rules.

"It's a lot of changes," Ryan said. "That's why we gave a 60-day comment period."

Elton said he thought the fish labeling rule was needed because Alaska residents want to make informed choices about their seafood. "Alaska consumers do make purchase choices based on whether (fish) is farmed or not farmed," he said.

The department has 27 inspectors for food establishments. The new labeling requirement and the food safety program are expected to cost $287,000 in the first year. After that, costs are likely to decrease, state officials said.

Douglas Cafe owner Cisco Ramos said his small restaurant may see some negative effects from the proposed rules.

Ramos said his restaurant may need to close down for at least a day in order for the managing staff to get the required accreditation, which is available in an eight-hour training session.

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