State mandating food safety certification at all eateries

Many people in New York state’s restaurant industry must return to school this year and earn a food
Schenectady County Community College culinary student Rebecca Rivera cleans under a deli slicer as Chef Dave Wixted lifts it off the counter on Monday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Schenectady County Community College culinary student Rebecca Rivera cleans under a deli slicer as Chef Dave Wixted lifts it off the counter on Monday.

Categories: Schenectady County

Many people in New York state’s restaurant industry must return to school this year and earn a food safety certification now required under state law.

David J. Wixted, a technical specialist in Schenectady County Community College’s Department of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism, is anxious to spread the news.

As project coordinator of the New York State Hospitality Grant, which has been charged with running one-day seminars for food service personnel, Wixted does not think some establishments know about the new rule.

State legislators last August passed a bill requiring restaurants and other establishments that prepare and serve food to have at least one staff member instructed in the safe and proper handling of food, as well as safe preparation, cooking, storage, serving and delivery of food. New York City adopted food preparation safety rules a year ago, Wixted said, so courses will be held for kitchen staffers working in upstate New York.

The certification must be in place by Sept. 1, and affects all places that serve food — restaurants, delicatessens, pizzerias, school cafeterias, nursing homes, fraternal organizations, hamburger stands, even bowling alleys and snack stands on golf courses.

“Very informally, the places I go to, I’ve talked with the owners and asked, ‘Did you know this bill was passed?’ and they had no idea it was passed,” Wixted said. “That’s why we’re trying to get the word out.”

On Monday, Wixted announced a slate of “ServSafe” courses — a program developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation — that will be held this winter and spring at Schenectady County Community College. People who prepare food in convenience stores and supermarkets are not required to attend the seminars. Wixted said those places are governed by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

“I think with all the recent food-borne outbreaks that we’ve had, that’s why New York state has finally passed this,” he said, of the extra expertise that will be required by fall.

Last fall, Topps Meat Company of Elizabeth, N.J., was forced to recall more than 21 million pounds of ground beef contaminated by E. coli bacteria. The major callback eventually put the company out of business.

During the fall of 2006, more than 70 people who ate at Taco Bell restaurants — mostly located in the Northeast — became sick with E. coli symptoms. Baby spinach contamination, another fall 2006 outbreak, resulted in 205 illnesses and three deaths, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“The state Health Department feels it’s important to have a staff trained in food service and sanitation practices,” said Beth Goldberg, a department spokeswoman. “This food safety training can have an important role in the prevention and detection of food-borne illnesses.”

The food safety courses will last eight hours, and will require registration and a $125 fee. The first class will be held Wednesday, Feb. 20, with pre-registration accepted until Feb. 6. Other classes will be held March 26 (pre-registration by March 12), April 23, (pre-registration by April 9) and May 19 (pre-registration by May 5). Eight more classes will be conducted at SCCC during June and July.

People can pre-register by contacting Wixted at his office telephone, 381-1291, or Denise Brucker, SCCC’s coordinator of workforce development, at 381-1314.

The course also will be taught at 10 other small colleges throughout the state, such as Niagara County Community College in the western part of the state, Adirondack Community College in Queensbury and Jefferson Community College in Watertown.

Wixted said people who work in restaurant management are target students. “That way, managers can train their people and they know what to look out for,” he said.

WELL DONE FOR EVERYONE

There is plenty to look for. Wixted said food preparation staff must know safe cooking temperatures for foods such as chicken and pork; they must know the safe cooking number for ground beef is 158 degrees, which mean waiters and waitresses can no longer offer diners rare or medium hamburgers — 158 degrees means well done.

“Restaurants are not even supposed to give you that choice,” Wixted said. “They’re supposed to cook it well done.”

The course will also tell food service workers the right ways to sanitize kitchens and machinery, ways to avoid food contamination, safe ways to cool foods and proper ways to accept food from suppliers, among other topics.

“You cannot accepted a dented can, a rusty can, a can missing a label,” Wixted said. “You’d be surprised at what some vendors will try to pass off.”

Chefs and cooking assistants must follow procedures to avoid cross-contamination of foods. For example, Wixted said, if raw chicken is being prepared on a cutting board, the board must be properly sanitized before another food, like lettuce, is prepared on the same surface.

Brad Rosenstein, president of Jack’s Oyster House in downtown Albany, said the legislation has been welcomed by the New York State Restaurant Association.

“We actually supported having at least one individual in the kitchen that was ‘ServSafe’ certified,” said Rosenstein, chairman of the board for the 8,000-member association. “Most of the culinary schools, when the kids get out, they are ‘ServSafe’ certified. We feel that it’s important not only for sanitation, but to train and direct the other individuals in the kitchen.”

Rosenstein added any restaurant that works on a reasonably high level has at least one staff member who has the sanitation and safe food prep training.

“Everyone in our kitchen is ‘ServSafe’ certified,” Rosenstein said. “It’s one of the questions I ask when I interview chefs, is whether they’ve been certified, because it’s important.”

Other restaurateurs in the area said they were not aware of the new legislation.

“We have not been told about it, not that I’m aware of,” said Eli Nahass, manager of Schenectady’s Fireside Pizzeria and Sandwich Pub. “It’s the law, so we’ve got to do it.”

Lou Gregory, owner of Gershon’s Deli and Caterers in Schenectady, also had not heard about the required seminars. He said his staff has received food safety training in the past, and has no problem sending an employee for a day-long seminar.

“It’s not a bad idea,” he said. “I think we all have to be brought up to a certain point … you’re dealing with public health.”

Wixted sees sanitation violations whenever he visits a restaurant.

“I’ve seen this in diners where waitresses will stack three coffee cups [and saucers] on top of each other and then bring them to the table,” he said. “That’s contamination because who knows what’s on the bottom of that saucer?”

Ice can be another problem.

“Ice is considered to be a ready-to-eat food,” he said. “When it goes into a drink, you cannot take that glass and scoop it through, you cannot use your hands and put it in the glass. You need an ice scoop to dispense the ice.”

People who successfully complete the course exam will receive a five-year certification for handling food. Wixted said restaurants and other food establishments must send representatives or risk consequences.

“If the inspectors come and they don’t have their certification, whatever fines they have or whatever penalties they have, they’re going to face the music,” he said.

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