Sunday, November 29, 2015 • 11:29

County to reduce food handler certificate cost

August 27, 2014
The cost of a food handler's certificate will be reduced from $6.00 to $3.00 effective September 5.

A pair of 5-0 San Diego County Board of Supervisors votes approved the first reading and introduction of the ordinance July 30 and the second reading and adoption August 6.

"Today's change I think will benefit both the County of San Diego and the local food handler training services," said Supervisor Dave Roberts. "We're going to have a quality product, but we're going to do it more efficiently."

San Diego County's food handler program promotes food safety education for employees who are involved in the preparation, storage, service, or handling of food products.

"San Diego was actually one of the first counties back in the 1980s to implement food handler training," said Amy Harbert, the assistant director of the county's Department of Environmental Health (DEH).

DEH created the food handler program after poor food handler practices resulted in a large foodborne illness outbreak in 1980. The program, which has been used as a model for other California and out-of-state agencies, provided knowledge of food safety standards for food handlers and helped to reassure the public that food facilities in San Diego County were safe. DEH staff initially conducted the food handler training, although the instruction portion was privatized in the late 1980s and the resulting food handler schools provided a training network to be overseen by DEH.

Any person who prepares food or may come in contact with food products, utensils, or equipment must complete a training course and obtain a food handler certificate within ten days of being hired. The DEH inspections of food facilities include checking for food handler cards. Food handlers must pass a proficiency test every three years.

"It's one component of our food safety program. It's an important one. To provide that training is a proactive piece," Harbert said.

Other major components of the DEH food safety system include review of plans for the opening of food establishments and the A, B, and C rating cards which provide the public with information about compliance.

Many food industry businesses offer training and proficiency tests at their workplace; the test is approved by DEH and administered by a certified owner or employee. Food handler schools approved by DEH are also authorized to issue certificates to people who complete a three-hour training course either on-line or in the classroom and pass a proctored proficiency test.

DEH also offered a renewal program involving a proctored proficiency test at the DEH offices in Kearny Mesa and San Marcos, although only two to three percent of such cards have been issued that way.

Food handler schools and instructors submit their curriculum to DEH for review and approval, and the schools are also certified to ensure that they meet training and testing requirements. The fee, which is being reduced from $6 to $3, funds DEH oversight of that.

Although on-line training had been an approved option for food handler schools, on-line testing had not. After evaluation of information technology systems and security measures to ensure the integrity of on-line testing, DEH began stakeholder outreach and then informed local food handler instructors of the option. No Board of Supervisors approval was needed to implement the on-line testing, and DEH has begun evaluating applications from food handler schools desiring to implement such a feature.

"We can use technology to make this more efficient," Dave Roberts said.

"It was great. We started looking at the ability to offer on-line training and testing," Harbert said. "We looked at the entire program and we were able to see other ways to modernize things and ways to save cost."

The renewals at the DEH offices, which cost $20, will be discontinued as of December 31. "That helped us to achieve some of those cost savings," Harbert said.

Another factor in the reduction of the fee involves shifting the DEH cost to evaluate prospective new food handler schools, new or revised curriculum, on-line exam security, and assessment of food handler instructor knowledge. The DEH cost for those activities had been included in the cost of the food handler certificates, but now the schools and instructors will pay directly based on the county-established hourly rate (currently $142 per hour). Online posted instructions and a checklist with detailed guidance will allow submittals requiring less DEH staff time for review and approval.

"I'm really pleased to see that we're maintaining safety, yet we're cutting costs," Dave Roberts said.

"That's good for food handlers, that's good for business, that's good for everybody," Harbert said. "We don't compromise or change anything. We still maintain the same level of food safety."

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