Legislative proposal would have Alaskans eating at their own risk

Posted: Tuesday, March 12, 2002

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but in the most advanced country in the world, we have come to take for granted that at least lunch will be free from food poisoning.

Not so under a legislative proposal that would shut down the state's retail food safety and sanitation program. The proposal entirely eliminates state oversight of all restaurants, grocery stores, food booths, school kitchens, day care centers, tattoo parlors and public accommodations. The justification is that communities ought to do this rather than the state government. Right now, only Anchorage provides most of these services.

Oversight of commercially available food is a core governmental function done to protect public health -- and is something that Alaska has done since before statehood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people are made ill each year from food-borne diseases, some 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,200 die. There are more than 250 food-borne diseases, including salmonellosis, botulism and e. coli.

The food safety program works to prevent those outbreaks from happening here. We look for the conditions that can cause food-borne illnesses. We work with operators to identify food safety hazards and what can be done to control them. We ensure the business's employees are following proper hygienic practices. We check that food comes from approved sources and that it is protected from contamination.

We also investigate complaints. Confirming a business is not the source of an illness can be just as important as confirming that it is. The National Restaurant Association estimates that the average food-borne illness outbreak costs the owner of the establishment $75,000. Investigations of food-borne illnesses can lead to both short-and long-term improvements in food handling practices and help us understand environmental pathogens so that long-term improvements can be made in the food safety system across the state.

And it is a system. Whether you call it from "boat to throat" or "farm to fork," the concept is the same. Food safety is a partnership that involves the harvester, the processor, the server, the consumer and government. A failure at any point puts everyone at risk.

Whether the state or local governments should oversee retail food safety and sanitation of public facilities is a legitimate public policy debate. But the debate and the decision need to happen before these essential services are simply eliminated. Right now, there is no system in place for local governments to provide these services, no plan for those that only have a handful of retail food establishments, no assurance for processors who invest in producing a quality product and want to see it served the same way, and no way for the public to protect themselves, their visitors or their kids.

The path that's being proposed is to eliminate the program and hope that all communities statewide will step up to the plate to provide oversight to some 4,640 food establishments and 4,293 public facilities. Unless and until they do, you'll need to think twice when you or your visitors dine out, buy prepared foods, have your kids eat the school lunch or jump in your community's public pool.

Right now, we take the safety of these places for granted. And if you live in Anchorage, you'll be able to keep that confidence. The rest of us will be on our own.

Janice Adair is the director of the Division of Environmental Health within the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

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