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Blunders: City Attorney Forced to Invalidate Hundreds of Restaurant Health Certifications

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In what's being called an unprecedented move, the San Francisco Department of Public Health has been forced to nullify the food safety manager certification at 345 San Francisco restaurants—plus another 183 outside the city—because of "inappropriate testing and certification procedures" on the DPH's part. The decision comes at the end of an investigation by the City Attorney's office that uncovered shenanigans by three DPH food inspectors—two of which have been fired—who apparently went rogue and/or screwed up the certification examination process, either by not giving the test at all or giving away the answers (just like the cool teacher in school).

But here's what it means for the hundreds of affected eateries, so listen up restaurateurs. Per state law, all restaurants must have an owner/employee who has passed the food safety exam. Even though the DPH has determined that there's no wrongdoing or immediate safety problems on the restaurants' parts, the affected restaurants must still get new certification and they will have 60 days to obtain it, so hop to it.

The full release (emphasis ours):

FOOD SAFETY CERTIFICATIONS INVALIDATED FOR HUNDREDS OF RESTAURANTS

Certification holders will have 60 days to be re-tested, re-certified

SAN FRANCISCO (Aug. 25, 2009) -- Today, the San Francisco Department of Public Health (DPH) will be notifying 345 San Francisco restaurants that their certification for food safety managers will no longer be recognized as valid as a result of inappropriate testing and certification procedures. Officials from DPH also informed state and county public health authorities throughout California of at least 183 additional restaurants outside of San Francisco whose certifications are similarly affected. Another 78 certifications whose holders list no address have also been identified.

Today's unprecedented enforcement action follows an investigation initiated by DPH and conducted by City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office that uncovered significant irregularities in the administration of the exams by three DPH food inspectors working independently and without the authority of the Department.

Herrera's investigation found that numerous Food Safety Certifications had been issued to individuals who never actually took the examination. Other examinees were given the correct answers during the course of the exam, and in still other instances test materials and correct answers were shared with examinees before the test was administered.

Two of the three DPH food inspectors are no longer employed with the City, and an investigation continues into the conduct of the third employee.

"Because the reliability of Food Safety Certifications is essential to public health, the Department has determined that the above certification is no longer valid," DPH's Occupational and Environmental Health Director, Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, wrote in letters to affected restaurants and certificate holders today. "We understand that obtaining a new certification is time-consuming and that the need to do so in the next 60 days may be frustrating. However, we hope that your business shares the Department's commitment to meeting the highest standards regarding food safety, and trust that you understand the importance of ensuring that all retail food establishments have reliable Food Safety Certifications."

The notices sent this morning allege no wrongdoing or immediate food safety problems on the part of restaurants or individual certificate holders. Rather, City public health authorities have determined that affected certificate holders must be recertified. State law requires food facilities to have at least one employee or owner who has successfully passed an approved and accredited Food Safety Certification examination. The affected restaurants will have 60 days to obtain new certifications, or to inform DPH that another validly certified staffer can fulfill the required role.

Bhatia additionally informed the California Department of Public Health and his counterparts in California's 57 other counties of the testing irregularities uncovered, together with San Francisco's response, noting that, "given the statewide and national portability of Food Safety Certifications, many California counties are likely to be affected by this issue."

In addition, Herrera's office today contacted the two certification organizations who licensed the three former DPH inspectors to conduct the Food Safety Certification examinations -- the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals and National Restaurant Association Solutions -- informing them of their responsibility to establish effective safeguards against such misconduct, and to contact his office's Chief Trial Deputy for further discussions.

Herrera's investigation into the matter remains ongoing.

· The City Attorney's Food Safety Exam Presskit [.pdf]

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