Sometimes it takes more than a sudden jolt to realize that something needs to be improved. And more times than not it takes some fine tuning, bolstered with a great deal of thought, time and persistence to get the necessary improvements into place.  

And so it is with making rules aimed at keeping food prepared in restaurants, grocery stores and schools and other retail food establishments safe to eat.

At the heart of it, that is the goal of the Food and Drug Administration’s Model Food Code, which is updated every four years. It’s not about a bunch of bureaucrats cooking up a new batch of regulations but rather a consolidation of input from stakeholders to help protect the health of all consumers. Reducing foodborne pathogens and changing food safety behaviors are key.

Even though consumers are the primary beneficiaries, most don’t even know the code exists. And those who know of the Model Food Code may not realize how much input from consumers and partners in industry, academia, federal, state, and local agencies go into the revisions of it.

While governments or agencies have issued recommendations, regulations, and ordinances on food safety for centuries, the first FDA Model Food Code in its current format was released in 1993. Initially, the model food code was updated every two years and is now updated every four years. The code serves as a benchmark for the retail foodservice industry. 

The retail segment includes establishments or locations in the food distribution chain where the consumer takes possession of the food, which can include farmers markets, hospitals, schools/colleges, catering businesses, mobile food trucks, and vending machines.

A model to safeguard public health
According to the FDA, the 2017 Food Code is “a model for safeguarding public health and ensuring food is unadulterated and honestly presented when offered to the consumer. It represents FDA’s best advice for a uniform system of provisions that address the safety and protection of food offered at retail and in food service.”

Susan Shelton, a public health advisor with the Washington State Department of Health Food Safety Program, explained that changes to the FDA Food Code generally reflect improved food safety science or other information available to reduce foodborne illness. 

“The goal is to help food establishments reduce risks that can cause illness in consumers,” Shelton said.

Although FDA’s Model Food Code is national in scope, states are not required to adopt it. When states update their retail food service rules, however, most adopt a version of the model with modifications and additions based on input from stakeholders in the state.

The FDA encourages its state, local, tribal, and territorial partners to adopt the latest version of the FDA Food Code. 

To see food code status state by state, click here. Or, call your state’s health department for information. 

Referring specifically to what’s happening in Washington as officials there work to revise the state’s retail foodservice rule, Shelton said  knowing and understanding the changes in the 2017 FDA Food Code will help operators improve the safety of their operations for their employees and customers and help them prepare to meet code modifications if they are passed in their areas. Shelton also encourages stakeholders to participate in the rule revision process.

Of course there’s more to food safety than codes and rules and regulations. There are also lawsuits. 

As many business owners know full well, they can lose their reputation, or even their business, should customers become ill from foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella or Listeria in food that hasn’t been handled and prepared according to basic food safety practices. 

This is why the FDA’s Food Code is so important — and so helpful.

“It’s a model that at the very least should be a minimum standard for industry,” said Shelton.

On the road to revisions
Washington state has recently announced the draft of proposed changes to its retail food service rule, WAC 246-215.  

“This is the time to make comments for change,” said Shelton. “Comments are really key.”

To view and download a copy of the proposed rule and a summary of the proposed changes, click here. To file comments, click here. Comments on the proposed changes will be accepted until the end of July.

Some proposed changes
Here is a highlight of 10 of the proposed changes to Washington state’s food rule:

  • Person in charge — At least one person in charge must be a certified food-protection manager by July 1, 2021. That person will need to ensure “active managerial control.”
  • Clean up of vomiting and diarrheal events — Operators will need to have a written plan to deal with these events. They can’t just panic and call their cook out of the kitchen or some other employee who’s waiting on tables to clean up the mess.
  • Bare Hand contact with ready-to-eat foods — Establishments that don’t want to require their employees to wear gloves or other “barriers” between their hands and the food will need to show that they have “active managerial control” in order to be approved.
  • Date marking for 7-day shelf life — Most ready-to-eat, refrigerated, perishable foods in opened packages will need to be marked and used within a 7-day shelf life. This will be new to Washington state, Shelton said.
  • Refilling reusable containers owned by consumers — Establishments have the option to allow customers to bring in a clean container to fill, refill, or reuse. While some see this as an environmental plus because it eliminates foam and other “to go” container), some restaurants are a bit nervous about having them in the back where food is being prepared. Shelton said this issue spurred the most comments from the public.
  • Dogs in outdoor areas — While dogs would be allowed in outdoor areas of restaurants, establishments that would opt to allow this must follow a set of written procedures with an approvable plan.
  • Mobile food units — Several changes were made for mobile food units based on recent state-law changes and comments received.
  • Donated foods — Several sections of the rule about this issue were changed to clarify approvable food sources and to reduce limitations to safely rescue food, which in many cases would end up in a landfill. Shelton said an example of this are milk containers and cheese sticks from schools that can be salvaged.
  •  Hamburger and other ground meats will need to be cooked to 158 degrees F instantaneous — instead of 155 degrees F for 15 seconds. Shelton said that unlike poultry and non-ground meats that continue to cook for a certain amount of time after being taken from their cooking heat source, the temperature of hamburgers actually begins to decrease. However, burgers can be cooked to 155 degrees F as long as two requirements are met. The operator would need to increase the holding time at 155 F from 15 to 17 seconds, which would align with USDA requirements, and they would need to prepare a plan showing how employees are monitoring both the temperature and the 17-second holding time.
  • Fish — Even though restaurants that receive fresh fish such as salmon and halibut that hasn’t been frozen are supposed to always fully cook the fish to at least 145 degrees F before serving it, this is hotter than most chefs want to cook it and most consumers want it to be cooked.

The current consumer advisory on menus is designed to prevent bacterial risks, but undercooked fish can also have parasites that can infect people. 

The FDA has been very clear and has repeatedly advised the Washington State Department of Health that fresh fish that have a risk of parasites must be fully cooked.

However, the new language in the proposed rule would allow establishments to prepare partially cooked fresh fish as long as they provide written notification to the consumers about the risk of parasites if they order it undercooked. 

Important dates
A second draft of the revised rule will go to the state Board of Health in November. From there it will likely go to public comment officially in January 2020. If the rule is adopted, it could be put into place by May 2020.

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