My Turn: Food safety cuts put public health at risk

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

Raw sewage standing inches deep on the kitchen floor during the lunch rush. Raw chicken on the counter, oozing blood onto cooked chicken going into salads. A dog using boxes of frozen food stacked in an alley as a fire hydrant. Live birds in cages being "stored" along with food items. While certainly not the norm, all of these conditions - and more - have been found at restaurants and grocery stores in Alaska and corrected because of state inspectors.

HB 532, introduced by the House Finance Committee just six days before adjournment, would prohibit the state from overseeing in any way retail and wholesale food establishments. The bill also repeals laws requiring basic sanitary practices at public facilities such as child care centers, tattoo and body piercing shops, and pools and spas.

If this House bill is enacted, or if the House's plan to eliminate the budget for this service passes, here's what you'll have to think about before you bite into a burger or drop off your child at day care:

• The state will have no authority to ensure recalled foods are not sold or served to the public.

• The state will be unable to investigate claims of food borne illnesses and, if necessary, close down a retail food establishment that is suspected of making people sick.

• There will be no standards for the safe sale or service of food at public schools, senior citizen centers, child care facilities, grocery stores, restaurants, and fairs or other special events.

• The millions of federal dollars Alaska receives for programs providing school lunches and breakfasts and senior citizen meals could be jeopardized.

• There will be no disinfection or health standards for public pools to prevent the growth of disease-causing bacteria.

• There will be no standards for basic sanitation practices for childcare workers to prevent kids from getting sick.

• The recently passed law requiring tattoo and body-piercing shops to meet appropriate sanitation requirements to protect clients from blood-borne pathogens will be eliminated.

It's enough to turn your stomach.

Alaska will stand alone among the 50 states as the only place in America where all retail food operations are not routinely inspected or otherwise regulated for safety and sanitation. This isn't a new government program - Alaska's territorial governors' reports to Congress as far back as 1922 discuss how sanitation and food safety were being addressed in the territory.

Food safety is a classic governmental service because it is not something people can do for themselves. You cannot smell, taste, or see E. Coli, salmonella, botulism or any of the myriad of other microorganisms that cause food-borne illness and disease. Every individual cannot monitor the conditions that allow bacteria to grow to dangerous levels in restaurants, hotels, or school kitchens; nor can everyone carry around recall notices to check product lot numbers.

Assuring food and public facility safety is a core government role. House members say that local governments should provide this service, not the state. Right now, only Anchorage does. Other large communities might have enough facilities to support a program and enough depth in their governmental structure to make it credible, but statutes have to be changed, charters have to be amended requiring a vote of the residents, ordinances adopted, and qualified staff hired. In other words, there would have to be an orderly transition. And, what about all those places in Alaska where there is no local government, or where there are only a few food operations?

It is irresponsible to create huge gaps in the existing safety net until there's someone else ready, willing and able to do the job.

Janice Adair is director of environmental health for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

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