Jeff Hill, an environmental health field specialist with the Tennessee Department of Health, inspects a kitchen at a Brentwood restaurant. Health officials say our food safety laws fail to address many issues. / Shelley Mays / The Tennessean
By Tom Wilemon, The Tennessean
State health officials and members of the restaurant industry plan to
ask the legislature to update Tennessee's 1976 food safety law.
"Our rules are so old they don't even address sushi," said Hugh Atkins, who oversees restaurant inspections for the Tennessee Department of Health.
The Tennessee Food Safety Task Force first considered tweaking compliance rules but finally decided the law itself needed a complete overhaul.
statute, more than three decades old, does not prohibit restaurant
employees from fingering your food and lists temperature requirements
for already-cooked dishes that can cause mashed potatoes to get crusty
and meats to get leathery.
Task force members say the law wastes
resources, falls short of federally recommended standards and can
penalize restaurants that operate in older buildings.
temperature requirements for already-cooked foods have no safety
benefit, Atkins said. Another requirement mandates that inspectors check
a peanut and candy shop as often as a full-fledged restaurant, where
the risk of a food-borne illness is much higher.
resources, we need to be able to focus what resources we have where we
think it's most appropriate," Atkins said.
In July, the state lost
six of its 113 health department inspectors to budget restraints -- the
first cutbacks since the start of the Great Recession, he said. The
department plans to streamline the inspection process using small,
hand-held computers with special programming that allow inspectors to
file reports from the field. The inspectors, who also do checks on
tattoo parlors and swimming pools, have a lot of ground to cover.
"Tattoo establishments get four inspections a year," Atkins said. "Pools get inspections every month they are in operation."
food establishments have to be inspected once during the first half of a
calendar year and once during the second half -- even The Peanut Shop
in Nashville's historic Arcade. Atkins would prefer a once-a-year check
at a candy shop so inspectors would have more time to double up on a
Vague language, headaches
The language on food handling is vague.
thing that our statute and our rules don't give us as strong authority
as we'd like is bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food," Atkins said.
"Our current rules say it should be minimized."
The federal recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
say there should be no bare hand contact. But Tennessee inspectors
cannot cite a restaurant if they observe employees fingering food. The
FDA recommendations are only guidelines -- guidelines that other states
have written into law.
Chain operations with established protocols
and training based on those FDA recommendations have to change them to
do business in Tennessee. That's one of the reasons Greg Adkins, the
chief executive officer of the Tennessee Hospitality Association, supports updating the law.
the law also causes unwarranted headaches for mom-and-pop cafes. Adkins
said it is not uncommon for a business owner to be told to relocate a
hand sink, when the real health issue is whether employees are actually
washing their hands.
"There's a lot of emphasis on things that
really don't affect the food," Adkins said. "If you have a tile out of
place in your kitchen or if a ceiling tile is out of place, you are
going to get docked for it. That has nothing to do with how the food is