Two former San Francisco Department of Public Health employees have been accused of soliciting fees, allegedly in exchange for helping restaurant and food service managers cheat on exams to gain state-required food-handler certification, the San Francisco Chronicle and other California news outlets reported Wednesday.

At a news conference in San Francisco, District Attorney George Gascón and City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced that felony bribery charges had been filed against Ajamu Stewart, 54, and Clifton Sanders, 41, who they claim sought payments of about $100 to $200 to help some 350 restaurants managers pass the certification tests.

California requires that at least one person on staff at most food establishments be food-safety certified, and be able to demonstrate knowledge of proper food storage, cooking temperatures, sanitation, the risks of cross-contamination and other safe food handling practices.

The pay-to-pass scheme, which reportedly occurred over 18 months in 2007 and 2008, was disclosed by a restaurant whistleblower to the health department, which notified the city’s attorney office. The case was then turned over to the district attorney. Stewart and Sanders were fired, following an investigation, and the food-safety certifications they had approved were invalidated.

“It is of paramount importance that the public have confidence that the employees that are investigating and regulating food safety issues are carrying out their responsibilities with the highest degree of professionalism,” City Attorney Herrera said at the news conference.

Because some restaurant employees who allegedly paid Stewart and Sanders thought the fees were legitimate, they will not be prosecuted, the officials said. For many, English was their second language. “It became clear to us it would be a difficult criminal case to prove,” Gascón explained, “and we believe the greater culpability here goes to the public employees.”

Stewart and Sanders have pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including bribery and falsification of records. If convicted, they would face up to eight or nine years in prison.

Lack of familiarity with safe-food handling practices remains a challenge in the restaurant industry. A survey of 372 food service workers published this year by the University of Illinois at Chicago found that, on average, respondents scored only 72 percent on a basic food-safety test – a C- on most grading scales. Even employees certified in safe food handling – usually a manager or supervisor – averaged scores of only 77 percent on the food-safety questionnaire.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, restaurants with managers trained in food safety are less likely to have outbreaks of foodborne illness than those without training.