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MCHD revamping food service inspection process

MORGANTOWN — If the purpose of the inspection is to prevent food-borne illness, the focus of the inspection should be on the handling and preparation of food.  

That, in a nutshell, sums up the new risk-based inspection system for food service establishments being implemented by the Monongalia County Health Department.  

“Right now when we go into a facility, we’re concentrating on everything — floors, walls, ceilings,” MCHD Sanitarian Jennifer Costolo-Michael said. “The risk-based inspection approach is seen widely across the nation right now. It’s more geared toward looking at the five risk factors identified by the CDC that are most frequently identified as contributing to food-borne illness or injury.”

The MCHD will begin the transition internally in July by implementing the new inspection and interview procedure.

Then, come Jan. 1, 2024, all permitted food and retail establishments in the county will be placed in one of three risk categories.

Low risk will receive one inspection per year and include the county schools, coffee shops, hot spots and other facilities where no food is prepared from raw ingredients.

Medium risk will receive two inspections per year and will include retail stores with deli counters, fast-food restaurants, convenience stores with kitchens and facilities that would normally be low risk but have a poor inspection history.

High risk will receive three inspections annually and include all full-service sit-down restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, child-care facilities, ethnic facilities, facilities with special processing (like reduced-oxygen packaging) or preparation (like sushi or smoking/curing). Medium risk facilities with a poor inspection record will also start out in this category.

While any physical issues within a facility will also be noted by the inspector, Costolo-Michael said more emphasis will be placed on speaking with owners and staff about things like handling procedures, holding/cooking temperatures, food sources and sanitation.

“The goal is to build your program, make it strong and prevent food-borne illnesses, and spend your time in these facilities where it’s needed. Instead of going in and concentrating on a chipped floor tile and those kind of things that really aren’t going to contribute to a food-borne illness,” she said.

County Health Officer Lee Smith said the risk-based inspection system will take the health department from counting garbage can lids to actually addressing risks within local food establishments.

He noted this change has been years in the making.

“We’re now at the verge of instituting this as a policy, which will put us on a national footing. This is the way it’s being done,” he said. “We need to get out of this 1950s health department mentality and move to this next level.”

Food and retail establishments — including food trucks, vending machines, farmer’s markets and temporary food establishments — are among the 1,100 facilities regularly inspected by MCHD Environmental Health Services. 

MCHD Environmental Health Services is also in charge of providing food-handler training, and the fees for some of those services are going up.

During its most-recent regular meeting, the county’s board of health approved increases for in-person food manager class and testing (from $125 to $150); food manager test-only (from $50 to $100); off-site food-handler presentations (from $175 to $200) and off-site food-handler cards (from $10 to $20 for one- or two-year cards).

Environmental Health Program Manager Todd Powroznik said the fees were last adjusted in 2016.

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