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The Written Food Code: Prescription vs. Innovation

Jim Mann's picture

How the operator-interpreted code blurs food safety responsibility.

Health authorities help operators prepare and serve safe food. These agencies take their guidance from the FDA's written Model Food Code which sets out minimum standards in a 600+ page tome.

Every successive edition of the Code becomes more prescriptive, leaving less choice available for the operator. This dangerously dilute's the operator's commitment to the standards of safe food as he realizes he's not fully in charge of food safety. He interprets regulatory's reduction of choice as a shift in responsibility. Health authorities take over by virtue of them no longer allowing the operator to choose the method of compliance that works best for them - even when the solution is superior to the Code's "prescription".

Legally, operators clearly remain100% accountable in serving safe food. If ever there is a doubt, check the principle of Strict Liability and note who are the defendants named in lawsuits - not the health department. The health authorities inadvertently blur the responsibility lines by taking their lead from the preface of the Food Code: It is a shared responsibility of the food industry and the government to ensure that food provided to the consumer is safe …

This is reinforced on page 1 of the 2013 Food Code where the intent of the Code is stated: "The purpose of this Code is to safeguard public health and provide to CONSUMERS FOOD that is safe, unADULTERATED, and honestly presented." We believe this should be changed to read "The purpose of this Code is to help operators provide CONSUMERS FOOD that is safe, unADULTERATED, and honestly presented."

A former state regulator, responding to our growing concern regarding the suppression of innovation as a public health tool, he writes:

The prescriptive nature of the Food Code is now being understood by local health officials as: 'The health authority prescribes how a task is done and the operator is responsible to do the task as prescribed.' This interpretation, which differs from the traditional approach of Food Code which defined the minimum standard needed and operators were encouraged to innovate to complete the task at a standard that exceeded the minimum required by regulation. The prescriptive approach discourages innovation, reduces communication that allows education, and makes regulators more feared by operators.

Finally, documentation to prove you are following the prescription is excessive. In many instances health departments are requiring about 10 pages of documentation daily in terms of cooling logs, temperature logs, receiving logs, handwash logs, SOP logs, etc. For a restaurant open 365 days a year = 3,650 pages per year. Who reads it? Not the health authority which requires it to be done.

Handwashing For Life believes one of the most potent prescriptions to reverse this trend and reopen the door to innovation is that of Scheduled Inspections, preceded by a clarification of the purpose of the Model Food Code (1-102.10).

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