A new food handler training program goes into effect for all California restaurant workers Friday, and Sacramento-area employees and restaurateurs have varied opinions on its effectiveness.
The new law, Senate Bill 602, requires all restaurant employees – with a few exceptions – who handle food to complete an online training course with basic food safety instruction. According to the law, certified testing companies cannot charge more than $15, paid by the employee.
“There are similar laws and requirements like this in other states that require a basic level of food safety training, like Florida and Texas,” said Daniel Conway, legislative and public affairs director of the California Restaurant Association.
The association is a trade group for California restaurants and worked with county health inspectors and state Sen. Alex Padilla of Pacoima, who authored the bill.
“It will without a doubt have a positive impact in terms of food safety,” Conway said.
He added that San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties already had similar guidelines at the local level, and they had measurable results in decreasing the amount of food-borne ailments. Those counties are exempt from the law, given their current programs.
A similar program has been required for at least one manager at every restaurant for about a decade, Conway said, and the new comprehensive certification is modeled on that, but not as intensive.
The test, which must be passed with a score of 70 percent or better, covers six topics: food-borne illness, including terms and types; the relationship between time and temperature as it affects food-borne illness; the relationship between personal hygiene and food safety; methods of preventing food contamination; procedures for cleaning and sanitizing utensils and equipment; and problems and solutions concerning temperature control, cross-contamination, housekeeping and maintenance.
That, however, does not sit well with some restaurant workers.
“Well I’m mad I have to spend my money on it, and I really don’t think it’s going to make people more careful with food handling,” said Summer Johnston, an 18-year-old Starbucks employee.
“I definitely think that the company should have to pay for it,” she added.
Clarence Wong, a manager at Taro’s by Mikuni, said, "There was an initial fear about how much it would cost us if we had to pay for everyone to take the test, but because the employees are now paying for their own cards, it’s now a matter of the employees making sure to meet the standards before the deadline so that they can work.”
Records of cards – such as photocopies – must be kept by employers, and employees do not need to carry the cards with them when they work, according to an FAQ page put out by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which also lists exemptions for certain groups of employees and restaurant types.
Employers who cannot produce cards for their employees will be in violation of the law, and that violation can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor.
Conway said the card belongs to the worker, and only one is needed, renewed every three years.
The test can be taken here, and the certificate can be printed.
“It was meant to kind of give employees maximum flexibility,” he said. “A fair number of people working in the restaurant industry work several jobs, and they can use the same card wherever they go.”
He added that since it is statewide, people who live in Sacramento and go to college in a different county can use the same card if they have jobs in both places.
“We’re all for it,” said Patrick Mulvaney, owner of Mulvaney’s B&L. “I think it’s pretty cool, because it makes sure everybody is up to snuff and on the same level.”
He compared it to needing a license as a taxi driver or a cosmetology certificate to style hair in a salon.
Mulvaney said some of his workers without access to computers used one at the restaurant, and though all of his workers can read, he said that if they couldn’t, a manager would have to sit down and go through it with them, making sure it was all understood.
“I think it seems like a good idea, and it makes sense intuitively for me,” he said. “Everybody should know that things need to be under 40 (degrees) or over 140 (degrees) and the reasons it’s OK to leave vinegar out but not milk.”
Some employees at local restaurants doubt Conway’s assertion that the law will have any real effect.
"Basically, I think this is just a way for the state to get money, and every year there will be some way for them to make it more expensive,” said Taro’s by Mikuni Head Hostess Katrina Ewbank.
“Each restaurant has their own training already, and I honestly don’t think, if people weren’t practicing cleanliness before, that they’ll all of a sudden be super-clean,” she said. “Though, I think people might just feel better knowing that restaurants are requiring their workers to do it."
Christopher Weiss, a 21-year-old employee of New York Pizza and Plus, agreed.
“It wouldn’t upset me too much. It just means I’d miss a little bit of work to do the class,” he said. “It sounds like (the food handler card) would be necessary, but when you’re actually working with food, even after taking classes, you tend to do it your way. Doing a class kind of seems ridiculous.”
Employees may grumble, but it is required by law, and not having it will mean being unemployed.
“It’s theirs, but they need to have it…. If there is a health inspection, (inspectors) will ask for it,” said John Ruffaine, co-owner of Giovanni’s Old World Pizzeria. “As soon as it is enforced, if they don’t (have) it, they are without a job. They are not allowed to work (in food service) anymore.”
He added that employees not having the cards would be akin to the restaurant operating without any other permit.
A number of Ruffaine’s employees had already received their cards when questioned by The Sacramento Press in advance of the law’s effective date.
“The funny thing is, it seems they say they feel better about themselves because they feel more important about it – they have something that says that they can handle food. Their spirits are uplifted after taking it,” he said.
Ruffaine said the test involves a lot of common-sense items, but that they are important to prevent food contamination.
“Unlike us, there are many places that don’t really inform staff on not only how to properly handle food, but detergents,” he said.
Olive Garden server Teona Garza said the test is a pain, and she found out about it from other servers.
“We have to get it on our own,” she said. “It’s a boring test, and (Olive Garden) is making us pay the fee. But they said we have to get it or we won’t be employed."
For more information on the food handler card, click here.
The test, administered by ServSafe, and frequently asked questions can be found here.
Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell. Sacramento Press editorial interns Amy Wong, Nha Nguyen, Elizabeth Orfin and Taylor Miles contributed to this article.