In a move industry insiders say could mark the beginning of a national trend, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed new legislation requiring nearly all of the more than one million food handlers in the state of California to be certified in safe food handling procedures.

The new law, Senate Bill 602, was approved by lawmakers in a 74-1 vote in late August and then hung in limbo as the bill’s supporters wondered whether the governor would sign the bill despite the fact the California Assembly hasn’t passed a budget. 

Two years ago in the midst of yet another budget impasse, Schwarzenegger refused to sign any policy bills until the state’s massive budget shortfall was addressed.  The governor, whose term ends in January, signed the bill Monday; the budget, which still has not been passed, is 90 days late. 

Sponsored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, SB 602 goes into effect June 11, 2011 and requires all food handlers working in restaurants and other food service facilities to be certified in safe food handling practices within 30 days of hire. 

Food handlers hired prior to the new law’s effective date will need to obtain certification before then.  Employees working at temporary facilities are exempt from the requirement. Currently, restaurants need only one person on staff to be so certified and that typically falls to a manager or someone in a similar position. 

Restaurants and retail businesses are required to maintain records documenting that their employees are properly certified, and employees will have to keep their certification current as long as they work in food service. 

For the sake of those who can’t get to a certification class, which will be handled by local agencies, the new law also specifies that at least one online version of the class will be made available. 

Industry groups and media have praised the bill.  The California Restaurant Association, which claims 22,000 member businesses, supported the measure from the beginning.

“[Senate Bill] 602 is lawmaking at its best,” said CRA President and CEO Jot Condie in a release.  “All stakeholders were at the table, working together toward a shared goal of ensuring food safety. We wanted a common-sense approach to training restaurant employees to safely handle food and to avoid a patchwork of local regulations.  SB 602 achieves both of these goals.”

The bill was based upon models already enforced in three Southern California counties. 

Following a Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego in the 1980s, local government made certification of all food handlers mandatory.  The idea, said Liz Pozzebon, assistant director for the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, was to increase safety by increasing knowledge about food safety procedures.  The result was a notable decrease in incidents of foodborne illness in San Diego restaurants. 

Over the years, the department has continued to monitor food handlers’ knowledge.  In 2003, Pozzebon said, 1,200 food service workers were surveyed about major violations and to determine what they knew “before better emphasizing food-safety risk factors during inspections and on food handler training materials.”  Five years later, the survey was repeated and the department found a decrease of more than 60 percent in violations at retail establishments and a 50 percent increase in food handler knowledge, she said.

“The most successful businesses, food safety-wise, are those that have good procedures and training in force, reinforced by the presence of a food safety manager,” Pozzebon said. 

Similar programs in Florida, Oregon, and Washington have resulted in dramatic improvements, according to figures from Padilla’s office.  “A study by the Florida Department of Health found that the Florida state food handler program has lowered foodborne illness by an average of 7 percent a year since its inception – a total reduction of 79 percent in one decade.”