The Iowa Legislature is on the brink of extending a waiver of food safety regulations that have allowed a handful of Maid-Rite franchisees to cook and store loose hamburger meat in the same cooking vessel at the same time.


Food safety experts say the practice risks both undercooking the meat and cross-contamination.


Don and Sandy Short, owners of Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, Iowa began lobbying the Iowa Legislature for relief after losing an appeal to an administrative law judge that ended the waiver Maid-Rite franchises received under the administration of former Gov. Tom Vilsack.


After Vilsack, now U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, left office in 2007, a new director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals was named by incoming Gov. Chester J. Culver.


Dean A. Lerner, the new director, withdrew the waiver and promised the Shorts that if any restaurant owner is found “cooking and holding potentially hazardous food in the same unit at the same time, it will be marked as a critical violation and an alternative operation will be required within specified time limits.”


Lerner said the alternative “could be as simple as using a roaster or similar until to hold the cooked product for service at prescribed temperature.”


Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown received that specific critical violation at its next inspection, and filed an appeal that was not decided until Sept. 23, 2009.  The fasts were never in dispute.


Maid-Rite are low cost restaurants that serve a loose meat beef sandwich on a bun.  Originally the meat was both cooked and stored in the “Maid-Rite” cooker, but the corporation has been working to comply with food safety regulations on the issue since 2003.


Taylor’s and “very few” other franchisees still use the dual-purpose cooker, according to Bradley L. Burt, Maid-Rite president and chief executive officer.  Burt said the Shorts are ignoring corporate policy and food safety standards by continuing to pursue the waiver.


“Maid-Rite’s corporate policy and food safety standards require each new and existing franchise restaurant to separate the cooking and hot-holding processes,” Burt wrote in a letter to Iowa lawmakers.  “By separating the cooked product from the raw ground beef, our customers can be assured that their Maid-Rite sandwich is a wholesome and quality food safe product.”


Burt also said Maid Rite has a Roaster Oven for storing cooked product that would solve the problem the Shorts are having in getting a clean inspection for a cost of just $50.


“A $50 investment in food safety is not going to close small-town Maid-Rites, put Iowans out of work, or destroy our rural economy,” Burt added.


Burt purchased Maid-Rite in 2003, and immediately began asking franchises to discontinue the dual-purpose cooker and sought help in persuading them from the health departments in the several states Maid-Rite serves.


Iowa asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to investigate the Maid-Rite cooker in 2004, and was told that simultaneous cooking and holding in the same vessel “could result in cross-contamination or undercooking of the meat product” in violation of food codes.


Steve Young, who was Department of Inspections and Appeals director under Vilsack, in 2006 issued a waiver for existing Maid-Rite franchises, which required the restaurants to discontinue use of the cooker only upon sale to a new owner.  Young said it would be “unfair” to “make a 180-degree shift“ in longstanding policy.


Burt asked Iowa to review the waiver when Lerner was named to replace Young.


John M. Priester, the administrative law judge, found Lerner’s decision to end the waiver policy was justified.  “The threat of contamination of food constitutes a good reason,” he ruled.


The Shorts, however, did not give up.   They showed up at the Iowa statehouse, telling lawmakers that the administrative law decision means Maid-Rites will be closing across the state.


S.T.O.P.-Safe Tables Our Priority, the national advocacy group for safe food, tried to get Iowa lawmakers to focus on the food safety issue raised by the “Maid-Rite” cooker, but the Senate acted before it could get much traction.


By voice vote, a state appropriations measure was amended in the Iowa Senate to read:


“The waiver policy of the department of inspections and appeals allowing some food establishment franchises to continue the use of certain cooking apparatus for ground meat until such food establishment franchises are sold, as outlined in the letter from the department’s director dated June 15, 2006, shall continue in force unless specifically eliminated by statute.”


The bill goes to the Iowa House later this week, meaning a hard-to-get-out amendment is in a must-pass bill.  


As for the practices of Iowa’s many independent restaurants that also feature loose meat or taverns, a public health expert in the state says: “All other loose meat sandwich shops are in compliance with the food code.”