JUNEAU The House Finance Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would let the state require restaurant workers to pass a safe food-handling test.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation wants to require the certification because the state does not have enough employees to adequately inspect the 5,000 facilities for which it's responsible.
''We currently rely solely on inspections by government em-ployees to ensure food safety,'' said Division of Environmental Health Director Kristin Ryan. ''We would be putting more control in their hands to ensure food safety.''
The department plans to require restaurant managers to get a higher level of training than workers. They'd be required to develop standard operating procedures and inspect their own facilities, maintaining records that DEC could audit.
Anchorage Democrat Eric Croft questioned whether the department is depending too much on restaurants to police themselves.
''Is it realistic to think they're going to report their own violations get themselves in trouble as it were?'' Croft asked.
Ryan said there would be penalties for falsifying reports, and the department does not plan to cut back on its own inspections.
''Our inspections will continue, and they won't decrease,'' Ryan said.
But she said the state's efforts have been inadequate. Many facilities the state classifies as high risk don't get even yearly inspections now because the department is short-staffed.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Williams, R-Saxman, has long complained that restaurants pay for a DEC permit, but get no service for it from the agency. He has consistently tried to cut the agency's budget for restaurant inspections.
Ryan said the fees the agency charges for a permit to operate likely will go down, although restaurant workers will pay a $10 fee for a food handling certificate, which will be good for three years.
The bill also would allow the department to fine restaurants for violations. Previously, Ryan said, the agency's only real recourse was to close a restaurant if it broke the rules. That could still be done if there's an imminent health hazard, she said.
The measure would not affect Anchorage and other communities that have set up their own food inspection programs, Ryan said.
Rep. Richard Foster, D-Nome, wanted to know how the program would work in rural Alaska. He worried someone selling micro-waved hamburgers at a village airport could wind up violating the law because he or she couldn't get to Anchorage for training.
The department will try to make the training and testing as accessible as possible, Ryan said. It plans to spend $70,000 in the coming year on computer software that can provide food-handling instruction and a certification test in seven languages. The program could be accessed over the Internet, Ryan said.
For communities that do not have Internet access, the department could make paper training manuals available and have proctors give the test.
The more intensive training needed for restaurant managers probably would be provided at workshops that private organizations would offer around the state, Ryan said.
Establishments would have a one-year grace period to comply with the new rules, so certification would not be required until 2006.
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