Restaurant food safety rating program begins

The Hawaii Department of Health’s restaurant food safety rating program began Monday.

Officials are now posting color-coded placards at Oahu restaurants following unannounced inspections.

“Hawaii consumers will have more peace of mind about being protected from foodborne illnesses and other health hazards when they’re eating out this summer,” said Gary Gill, deputy director of environmental health. “The new food safety rules let consumers know which food establishments have violations and may cause some to think twice about eating at locations where concerns are not being addressed.”

Restaurants must meet new guidelines, including written advisories informing customers of increased risk for foodborne illnesses when selling or serving raw or undercooked food, including sashimi and sushi.

Gloves or utensils must also be used when handling ready-to-eat food, including sashimi and sushi. No bare hand contact is allowed.

Scratch Kitchen and Bake Shop

The first placard went up in the window of Scratch Kitchen and Bake Shop on Smith Street in Chinatown. It received a green placard for passing inspection.

A yellow card would mean the eatery has two or more major violations and needs a follow-up inspection. Red means the place is shut down due to health risks.

Restaurants that are cited can earn a green placard soon after they correct the violations.

“Once they notify us that the major violations have been corrected, we will be out with a follow-up in one business day and the reason why we can do that is just reprioritizing the work load of the staff,” said Peter Oshiro, environmental health program manager at the Department of Health.

But the new system is not sitting well with sushi restaurants, which may have a hard time getting the green placard as the rules stand, because they have to use gloves when handling food that isn’t cooked.

Sushi chef Masa Murakame of Mitch’s Sushi has spent most of his life perfecting the art of sushi making, but he’s never had to wear gloves to do. He says it will not only slow the process down, but the food he serves won’t be the same.

When asked if the sushi would taste different if he wore gloves, Murakame replied, “Maybe the rice, (it) would make it hard.”

Mitch's Sushi
Mitch’s Sushi

Food safety expert Tom Frigge says wearing gloves actually gives food handlers a false sense of security.

“When you’re wearing gloves, you don’t know that they’re dirty,” Frigge said. “When you don’t have gloves on, you can feel the dirt on your hands. I have actually seen people who are making sandwiches with gloves on grab a mop, mop up the dining room and then go back to making sandwiches because they’re wearing gloves.”

But the state says there’s a good reason why it wants food handlers who serve ready-to-eat foods to wear gloves: to prevent norovirus, which is the number one food borne illness in the country.

“Norovirus is transmitted mostly through bare hand contact so that’s why right now there’s a really big emphasis on no bare hand contact within a restaurant,” Oshiro said.

The state says restaurants can apply to get an exemption, but it requires a lengthy detailed documentation of double hand washing procedures.

“They have to keep logs and procedures of exactly what employees they’re going to allow this, who they’ll want this exception for and how they’re going to keep track and document every single procedure,” Oshiro said.

When asked if documentation is practical, Frigge said, “Some of it is documenting that yes, that person did wash their hands before they started making sushi, and how do you document that last Thursday at three o’clock, Masa made sushi but he washed his hands beforehand.”

The new placards are part of the Food Safety Code signed into law by Governor Neil Abercrombie earlier this year. All 10,000 food establishments statewide that prepare or serve food and require a DOH permit to operate their business are covered under the law.

There are roughly 6,000 such establishments on Oahu, 1,800 on Hawaii Island, 1,600 on Maui, and 690 on Kauai, and include restaurants, hotels, caterers, food warehouses, markets, convenience stores, lunch wagons, push carts, and institutional kitchens for healthcare facilities, preschools, elementary schools, adult and child day care centers, and prisons.

The new law follows what has already been occurring in other states across the nation. In anticipation of the rollout of the new law, DOH has been meeting with the boards and members of numerous industry trade associations to keep them fully informed of the pending rule change.

The law has received support and endorsement from the boards of directors of such groups as the Hawaii Restaurant Association, and has received no objections from theHawaii Food Industry Association, Hawaii Food Manufacturing Association, Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, and Hawaii farmers markets.

“Food safety and sanitation are high priorities for all of our members,” said Roger Morey, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, which represents 3,500 locations in the restaurant, food service, hospitality and tourism industries that employ more than 82,000 people statewide. “We believe this new law is good for Hawaii residents and visitors to our Islands, and will help to demonstrate our members’ commitment to high standards in all aspects of food handling. A green placard represents a seal of approval from the Department of Health, which will further support the business of our members.”

Risk Categories

Each food establishment is categorized into one of three risk levels for foodborne illnesses. Those at the highest risk levels are category 1 and those with the least risk are considered category 3. The number of food handling or preparation procedures determines the level of risk.  Approximately one-third of the inventory of food establishments are in each risk category.

A category 1 establishment is a full-service establishment that has six to eight different food procedures, including receiving, cold storage, hot storage, thermal processing, transportation, cooling, reheating and display. About one-third of Oahu food establishments fall into category 1. Regular inspections (not follow-up inspections) of Category 1 establishments will be conducted three times a year.

Category 2 establishments, typically fast food establishments, which have three to five procedures, will be inspected twice a year.

Category 3 establishments, such as cookie or ice cream shops have up to two procedures and will be inspected annually.

Details on the new placard system

Restaurant Ratings Hawaii

The Hawaii Department of Health will post a color-coded placard after an initial inspection of a food service organization to indicate it compliance status. This placard will be visible to patrons who visit the establishment and to the general public.

The law requires these placards to be posted in a display case outside on the outside wall of the establishment, within five feet of the main entry, or in an area readily visible to patrons when they enter the food establishment. The placard must remain in place until a new placard is issued.

Green: Food establishments receive a green placard if they have no more than one critical violation that was observed during an initial inspection, or that a violation was immediately corrected.

Yellow: A yellow placard is posted when a food establishment has a critical violation and it is not corrected, or when two or more critical violations are observed by a Department of Health inspector. Hawaii Department of Health inspectors will typically conduct follow-up inspections within two days to determine if violations have been corrected. Under the new law, there is more incentive for establishments to correct their violations in a timely manner without the need for ongoing monitoring by inspectors. Establishments can receive a green placard if follow-up inspections verify that corrections have been made. A yellow placard functions as a condition use permit. If it is taken down before corrections are made, an establishment could face fines of $1,000 per day.

Red: Food establishments that pose a danger to health of the community are immediately closed. A red placard is posted if food establishments must close because there is an immediate health threat to the community. Some of these conditions can include: evidence of foodborne illnesses or disease transmission from food establishment, an employee has a communicable disease; hot or cold water are not available as required; no power is available to operate refrigeration or cooking equipment; and sewage overflow or flooding. In severe cases where corrections are not made, the department may suspend a permit to operate.

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