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You can still see snippets on YouTube, and it's truly revolting.
Two years ago, two Domino's Pizza workers in North Carolina filmed a prank one put cheese up his nose and sneezed on a sandwich while the other narrated. When they posted it online, it went viral, leading to their firings and arrests and to a public relations nightmare for Domino's.
California Restaurant Association bigwigs were disgusted, too, and alarmed. What if a similar stunt happened here? It could devastate their members, already pounded by the recession. They also worried that local health officials might react, creating a hodgepodge of different food worker rules across the state. So they decided to take the lead on a statewide law that wouldn't be a financial burden on eateries.
"Consumers are going to be better off without question," says Jot Condie, the restaurant association's president and CEO. He points to a study that credited a similar Florida law with substantially reducing food-borne diseases, blamed nationally for an estimated 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year.
The goal is certainly worthwhile to better protect us from nasty illnesses caused by workers' unsanitary practices. But does government really need to get this deeply involved?
It makes me wonder whether this new law will prove to be yet another regulatory hurdle that will get in the way of small-business owners who we need to lead the economic revival. And because it's the workers who have to pay to get the new "food handler cards," it seems like the little guy is getting hosed, again.
It's already clear that creating the food safety law has been stomach-churning:
Powerful interests in the Capitol carved themselves out of the bill. Unions with members at places like airports, sports arenas and amusement parks got legislators to exempt them by saying they already trained their members. Grocery stores, hospitals, school cafeterias and many national chain restaurants also are not covered by the law.
Lots of outfits are elbowing for the lucrative business of training employees and issuing the certification cards, and there are reports of shady operations trying to bilk unsuspecting business owners and workers.
There's quite a bit of confusion, particularly among owners of mom-and-pop restaurants, who don't have associations with influential lobbyists to keep them in the loop. With little official guidance, they're left scratching their heads and fearing they'll get the short end of the stick.
And the process is not over yet: There needs to be a second bill to fix flaws in the original, and there will be an unofficial six-month grace period before enforcement begins.
To get a better sense of the bewilderment and frustration, listen to the owners of two well-known Sacramento eateries.
Marlene Goetzeler owns Freeport Bakery, the Land Park landmark that celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. With its treat-filled display case, it's a favorite haunt for students at nearby McClatchy High, as well as a destination for those who want that special cake.
Goetzeler does food safety training as part of employee orientation. But new regulations, she says, are "just part of your life" as a business owner.
She wanted to get her 43 employees in compliance well before the July 1 deadline. So she went to the Internet to see whether her manager, already well versed in food safety, could do the training and if not, where workers could take the test, what languages it was offered in and whether it could be done online.
If she hadn't figured out that some of the food handler cards being advertised weren't legitimate, she could have wasted time and hundreds of dollars. Goetzeler wonders how many small business owners might have been duped already.
"I'm angry more than frustrated," she told me.
Travis Hausauer, owner of Squeeze Inn famous for its burgers with "cheese skirts" hadn't heard of the new law, which he says wasn't mentioned during a health inspection this month.
He doesn't have much of a beef with the training because some workers are oblivious to common sense precautions on food safety. He does, however, have a problem with making employees pay for it.
"California sticks it to every employee in the state," he says. "We might as well stick it to them some more. And you wonder why people are leaving this state."
There's a reason why it's such a cliché to compare making laws to making sausage it's often true.
A decade ago, lawmakers required extensive food safety training for at least one person at every eatery, often the kitchen manager. The new food safety law is intended to mandate more basic knowledge for everyone who handles food: cooks, bakers, bartenders, other kitchen staff, waiters, etc.
By the time Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, introduced Senate Bill 602 in February 2009, health care facilities, and public and private school cafeterias were exempt. So were farmers markets, most grocery stores and eateries in Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties because those counties already had their own training.
In March 2010, the bill was amended to leave out many familiar national chain restaurants, the justification being that they have their own certified in-house food safety training. Then to guarantee passage, in the Assembly last June, unionized food facilities were exempted.
Union members already get similar training, said Barry Broad, a lobbyist for UNITE HERE, which has about 60,000 California members. The union also didn't like that employees would have to pay for the training and cards.
"We wanted the employers to pay for it," Broad said. "A lot of workers are kind of poor."
With all the carve-outs, of California's estimated 1.4 million food service workers, the best guess is that about one-third 400,000 to 500,000 will eventually have to get the cards.
Besides who has to comply, legislators wrestled with who would offer the training and issue the cards.
The 2½-hour training course and test are supposed to make sure workers know the basics about preventing food-borne illnesses: cooking meat thoroughly, washing fruit and vegetables, cleaning utensils and equipment and following good personal hygiene. The exam has to have at least 40 questions, and to get the card, a worker has to get at least 70 percent right.
Originally, the bill called on the state Department of Public Health to vet companies, but the agency wanted nothing to do with it, saying that with budget cuts it didn't have the staff or resources.
So there was a move to let the handful of providers who trained managers do the same for workers. That, however, set off loud protests from others who want a chance to cash in by offering the training a new multimillion-dollar industry.
Cleaning up the bill
After legislators amended the bill 10 times, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law on Sept. 27.
It's taken until this month to work out key details, and today, about two months before the law ostensibly takes effect, many restaurant operators and workers haven't heard much, if anything, about it.
While some businesses will help their employees get and pay for the food handler cards, the onus is on workers to obtain theirs before the law starts July 1, or within 30 days of when they're hired. That includes temporary workers, part-timers and students who just work during the summer. The card is good for three years and valid statewide.
Food industry workers are some of the lowest paid, with an average hourly wage under $10, less than half the average for all occupations. To help them out, at least one course has to be available for no more than $15 and at least one offered online or the law is erased. There are now two online courses, one for $15 and one for $12.95.
Because of all the delays and uncertainty, there will be "soft" enforcement for the first six months, with the emphasis on education. As part of their regular visits, county health inspectors will check businesses for copies of workers' food safety cards, but will only issue notices of the law's requirements.
After Jan. 1, repeated violations could lead to fines and ultimately closure, said John Rogers, Sacramento County's environmental health chief and chairman of an advisory group of public health and industry officials working through the law's implementation. Local health officials, in a conference call April 13, signed off on that plan, Rogers said. A position paper and guidelines have gone out to local health directors.
Padilla, whose cleanup bill, SB 303, passed the Senate unanimously the next day, is fine with it as well, says spokeswoman Taryn Kinney. She says it's not unusual for a bill to be amended to "address concerns" and in some cases to require a clarifying bill.
No one, however, seems totally satisfied with the final product.
Lawmakers and business leaders are taking an increasing interest in regulatory reform.
On May 10, legislators are scheduled to hold a hearing on a bill calling on state agencies to review all their rules and get rid of redundant, inconsistent or outdated ones, while continuing to protect consumers, public health and the environment.
Wanna bet whether the food safety law might be on that list a few years from now?