Food Code Review

Food Code Review

Mobile Food Carts, Bare Hand Contact and Some of the 100+ Possible Changes

Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association (ORLA) is currently participating in the Food Code Review Work Group which is tasked with adopting the 2009 FDA Federal Food Code. Every two years the FDA revises their food code and as it stands now, the State of Oregon is complying with the 1999 Federal Food Code which is reflected Oregon's Food Sanitation Rules. Statewide food safety rules closely reflect the federal code, however, states are given the option to "tweak" the code to more appropriately deal with food issues, processes etc… in the their own state.

The adoption of a new version of the Federal Food Code is a lengthy and time consuming process which is why Oregon has not adopted a new code since 1999. In the future the FDA is only going to change the federal code every 4-5 years which will make it easier for states to adopt the latest versions. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA), the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and food service stakeholders are working together on this adoption with the goal of having one statewide food code in Oregon. Ideally, whether you're a food processor, grocery store, restaurant etc…you will be held to the same food safety standards and criteria.

To date the committee has met for five all day sessions and there will be at least two or three more to come. Once the committee has gone through the code (line by line), they will make a recommendation on what to adopt in Oregon and that recommendation will go to rule making. At that point public hearings will be held and written comment will be taken on the proposed rule changes. After public comment is considered, the revised Oregon Food Code will officially go into effect in 2012.

As stated earlier, food stakeholders from all across the industry are involved in this process: grocery stores, convenience stores, chain restaurants, independent operators and a plethora of health inspectors. Needless to say the group does not always come to a consensus. Many of the changes are straightforward and agreeable such as changing the hot holding requirement from 140 F to 135 F. Others are much more controversial. There are a few highly debated and divisive topics which you should be on the lookout for. Currently inspection scores, mobile food carts, bare hand contact, outer openings and re-useable cups are areas to keep an eye on.

Some of the major issues like inspection scoring are being referred to a separate task force which has yet to convene. ORLA will be present at this task force as well when changes to the scoring and criticality of violations will be discussed. Presumably, the idea of restaurants posting their health scores will once again be discussed. When this issue was brought up before, it was established that the current grading system does not translate to letter grades that restaurants could post. When this proposal has made it to the ballot, it's been voted down. A similar outcome is expected in these discussions but there may be members of the group advocating for posting scores so we'll be watching this closely.

The most controversial issue in this group is sure to be the licensing of mobile food carts. This topic hasn't yet been touched since there are plans to bring mobile food cart operators to the table during a January meeting. The definition of "mobile" will be discussed and if a cart is not "mobile" what should their health requirements such as public restrooms, water systems, self-containment etc…be? This is a hot topic right now that many restaurant owners, members of the public and health and building code enforcers are passionate about for many different reasons. There are task forces popping up all over the Portland area to try and deal with many of these issues. ORLA will be involved in the discussions and will continue to update our members as these questions are answered.

Another divisive issue that has been discussed is bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods. In order to prevent contamination the FDA requires no-bare-hand-contact in the Federal Food Code, meaning when cooking or preparing food you have to use utensils to touch the food or where gloves at all times. This issue has come up during the food code review process in years past and has always been a battle between health inspectors and restaurants. In the past ORLA and industry members have been able to fend off this requirement by showing that glove use causes employees to be more likely to cross-contaminate and less compulsive about washing their hands. In addition it takes away from the culinary artistry of cooking by touch that many chefs in Portland are known for.

Unfortunately, many states across the nation have had a no-bare-hand-contact rule implemented for years, including Washington who passed the rule over five years ago. Because of this, many of the larger chain restaurants have bought off on the concept since they are already complying with this law in other states. Most likely no-bare-hand-contact will be put forward in the rule making recommendation since ORLA and the independents are strongly outnumbered on this issue. However, we will be watching this very closely and possibly calling on members to provide comments during the public input portion of rulemaking. In addition we'll continue providing input and amendments to this concept in order to lessen the burden on our members if in fact it moves forward.

Outer openings is another issue which was assigned to a task force which ORLA will have representation on. The question being discussed is if the open air seating venues, which Oregonians have shown to love, are in violation of health code since they allow for more bugs and critters to enter the kitchen and food service area when food is being prepared. There seems to be a general consensus around this issue that nobody wants to change open air dining establishments. There may be a few tweaks to the current code regarding kitchen containment but for the most part it's safe to say that open air dining will remain a staple of Oregon summers.

Finally, reusable customer cups for hot liquids is another intriguing topic. Current Oregon Food Safety Rules does not allow a customer to bring their own travel mug or thermos into a coffee shop and have it filled. Obviously many businesses are already doing this and most of the health inspectors have not been regulating this piece of the code up to this point. In a state as green as Oregon, you'd have a hard time turning back the clock on this rule. Therefore, during this process, the question is being asked if the rule should be changed to allow for refilling of some containers. Although this would be a variance from the Federal Food Code, language is currently being looked at that would allow for refilling of "home containers." This will most likely only pertain to hot beverages which will allow for those who are already doing this to be in compliance and those who have been sticking to the code to legally begin offering this service to customers.

As you can see there are many issues to be discussed in this group and the process is lengthy. This is just a small sampling of the 100+ changes that the work group is looking at. The food code covers everything from the definition of an egg to allergen requirements. Ideally in the end we will have Oregon Food Safety Rules that are consistent throughout the state and as close to the Federal Food Code as possible. We will continue to update our members as some of these key issues play out and new issues are discussed. In the meantime you have any questions, please contact ORLA's Government Affairs team at 503.682.4422. | Kara Ruecker