Public health restaurant inspections play a vital role in protecting diners from foodborne illness. But for those programs to work properly, they need to be reliable, consistent and responsive. Do inspectors look for the same criteria when investigating a restaurant? How are rules enforced and violations reported? Do food safety specialists communicate clearly with the epidemiologists investigating outbreaks?
To guide the health departments that operate these sometimes-complicated programs, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers its Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards, a set of nine areas that can help a food regulation program operate more effectively.
The program aims to help health departments take a critical look at their retail food regulation and find ways to improve it.
“It forces you to put your program under a microscope and find out what’s working and what’s not,” said Lauren Baker, an environmental health specialist for the Chatham County Health Department, which has participated in the FDA program for 10 years. “I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in how effective our procedures have become.”
The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and 62 of the state’s 159 county health departments participate in the program. Cameron Wiggins, DPH’s food service program director, said the Office of Environmental Health encourages but does not require counties to participate. But doing so has definite benefits.
“The FDA Program Standards are based on a gold standard for continuous improvement,” he said. “A jurisdiction that is working towards meeting the standards develops policies and procedures during the process for incremental self-improvement.”
The process is beneficial, but can be complicated. To help, the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) sponsors a mentorship program so that food regulation programs with a lot of experience implementing the standards can help their peers who may be just getting started.
The Gwinnett County Health Department participated in the NACCHO program last year, serving as a mentor to a county in North Carolina. Joseph Sternberg, the department’s environmental health director, said guiding another department through the process even enhanced how his office implemented the FDA’s standards.
“When we explain it to someone else, it helps us take another look at our program and understand why we’ve done what we’ve done,” he said.
NACCHO awards mentor health departments $8,000-$18,000 for their participation and mentee departments $8,000-$10,000. Applications for the NACCHO mentorship program are due Oct. 31. For more information, visit NACCHO’s website.
To learn more about the FDA Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards, visit the FDA website.