People prefer to learn about food safety in their pajamas – or at least from their home computers.
Earlier this year, the Spokane County Regional Health District’s food safety program began offering the education and testing for food-handler permits online and there has been a 12 percent bump in the number of people getting their food worker cards. The cards are required for anyone who handles unwrapped food or beverages when they are serving the public.
Health district spokeswoman Kim Papich said the district averaged 75 people per day who came to the office for their food worker cards before they were made available online in March. Now, there is an average of just 20 people who come to the district each day for the testing.
Although there are concerns that people could be cheating at home, Papich said food inspectors are happy that the online education and testing has expanded their reach. “There are always people who try to figure out a way around the system but it’s at least a positive thing that there are a lot more people taking the test,” she said.
The health district issued 18,000 new food worker cards in 2011.
Spokane County food safety inspectors said the most common violation they see at local establishments is “food worker cards not current for all food workers.” Spokane County is covered by nine inspectors who conduct about 3,500 inspections each year. There are 2,300 permitted food establishments in the county.
“The main reason for the inspections is education and to make sure that they are following the guidelines of the state,” said Jon Sherve, technical adviser to the health district’s food safety program. “Our intent is to reduce the risk factors.”
Food inspectors use educational visits in addition to inspections to reduce violations associated with food contamination spread by hand. They emphasize proper hand washing, ways to prevent bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods and the importance of having adequate hand washing stations. Inspectors are able to spend a few extra minutes at each establishment talking about the importance of these efforts and how it helps stop the spread of both bacterial and viral illnesses though cross-contamination. They can also talk about the risk factors most important at their establishment.
“If they are handling ready-to-eat foods they need to have a barrier between their hand and the food. So, that can either be a glove or a utensil of some sort, just something that prevents their hand from contacting the food,” Sherve said. “Ready-to-eat food is food that is not going to be further washed or cooked before it is served.”
The new online food handler permitting has also led to a reduction in the hours cards are issued in person. The health district office will no longer offer food worker card testing every day because most people are getting their cards online. The new hours, effective today, are Monday, Thursday and Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. There is a $10 fee for the food worker cards whether the test is taken in person or online.