More than a passing grade: Program showcases commitment to food safety

Amanda Mayle

It’s estimated that on a typical day, 44 percent of adults in the United States eat at a restaurant. The National Restaurant Association projected overall sales hit a record $863 billion in 2019. Clearly, most of us love going out to eat.

Yet, few of us understand the inner workings of food safety. Foodborne illness is a common and costly public health problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans get sick from contaminated foods or beverages each year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates the economic effects of these illnesses add up to more than $15.6 billion annually.

Because so many of us eat out and so few of us know how to safely prepare food, restaurant report cards or other grading systems evaluating the performance of retail food establishments have become a key piece of research upon which consumers rely when dining out.

However, these report cards have become somewhat synonymous with the worst offenders. It’s a bit like neighborhood gossip. People thrive off knowing secrets, and the dirtier — literally, in this case — the more people are interested. You know what I’m talking about. And you’ve probably read some of the published reports about cockroaches in the kitchen, food stored on the floor and moldy vegetables in the refrigerator. Most of these reports tout the number of “critical violations,” serious violations that had to be corrected when a health inspector was on site.

The State of Colorado amended its retail food establishment rules and regulations in 2019 to align with the language of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration  Food Code. Violations are now called priority, priority foundation or core items and better identify risk-based controls. Some of the language has changed, but these grades remain only a small piece of the overall operation and what goes into ensuring food safety at retail food establishments.  It’s an incomplete and usually unfair way to provide the information consumers demand.

Mesa County Public Health uses a system that better represents overall commitment to food safety. Our regulatory programs focus on safety and prevention and are designed to support our partners in their desire to be the best they can be. For our retail food partners, that means offering a recognition program to ensure they’re operating in a way that protects the community from illness.

The Blue Ribbon recognition program should be the “grade” consumers ask to see in Mesa County. It’s beneficial for both our partners and the community, with food establishments getting the tools and resources they need to improve food safety and the community benefiting from safe operations. The Blue Ribbon program focuses on measures that ensure the highest food safety standards are met. A major part of the program focuses on education for staff and managers, and our inspection team serves as a resource for restaurants. This partnership ensures restaurants operate safely every day of the year, not just the day health inspectors show up. Programs that use grades or other rating systems acknowledge it’s a snapshot, one moment in time. Active managerial control is the main component of the Blue Ribbon program, helping restaurants remain proactive in their approach and control risks inherent to retail food establishments.

The Blue Ribbon program is open to all retail food establishments, including food trucks, grocery stores, restaurants and some convenience stores. Retail food establishments that qualify for the Blue Ribbon Award work with health inspectors to put procedures in place such as temperature logs and self-inspection forms that set their businesses up for success. In addition, at least 90 percent of food handlers at each business are trained in food safety and hold a Mesa County food handler card or ServSafe certificate. Managers are food safety certified.

If you own, operate or work at a retail food establishment in Mesa County and are interested in learning more about partnering, give us a call. Customers look for the Blue Ribbon as they spend their hard-earned money at local eateries. For a complete list of Blue Ribbon partners, visit health.mesacounty.us.