News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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September 18, 2013

State food safety laws raise concerns

INDIANAPOLIS — State health officials are looking for ways to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses at events sponsored by churches, youth organizations and other nonprofits without inadvertently regulating them out of existence.

Legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year is requiring the Indiana State Department of Health to review the state’s confusing and conflicting food-safety laws that cover some nonprofit organizations but not others.

At a hearing on the issue Monday, a state health official said there needs to be increased awareness among both regulated and unregulated entities of basic food-safety rules to reduce food-contamination outbreaks that lead to illness, hospitalizations and deaths.

“We think it’s important that there ought to be somebody in charge, that could promote food safety in the organization, to provide some kind of oversight,” said Anthony Gilliam, a state health department official.

State and federal officials have been working over the past decade to reduce the easily transmitted foodborne illnesses linked to unsafe food practices. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011, there were more than 5 million people hospitalized, and 149 deaths, from the norovirus. Another 19,336 were hospitalized from salmonella poisoning, which claimed 378 lives.

Indiana currently has a law that requires all restaurants and other “food establishments” to have a certified food handler on staff to oversee food-safety matters and to act as an educator for employees about safe food handling practices.

But there’s some confusion about what constitutes a “food establishment” when it’s run by a nonprofit organization. For example, a church has a limited number of days every year during which it can serve food to the public before it becomes a “food establishment.”

One of the concerns that emerged during Monday’s hearing in front of the Senate Health Finance Commission was the unintentional risk being posed by volunteers who work food-related events held by churches and other nonprofits that are exempt from the state’s food-safety regulations.

Those volunteers aren’t required to receive any food-handling training, nor is the church or nonprofit required to provide it.

State Sen. Patricia Miller, an Indianapolis Republican who chairs the commission, is also a nurse. She said she’s been at church and nonprofit events where volunteers are told to wear gloves when serving food, but aren’t warned about cross-contamination.

“People think if they’ve got on gloves, that’s all they need. But I’ve seen them wipe their face, go handle money and then pick up a sandwich, without changing their gloves,” Miller said. “They’re trying to do what’s right, but they’re just getting half the story. And we just need to try to help them.”

What form that help might take is still subject to debate. Gilliam said the state health department would like to see organizations that are currently exempt from the state’s food-handling laws follow more closely the practices of those organizations that are covered by law. He stopped short of calling for more regulation, though.

The legislature attempted to improve food-handling practices in 2001 when it redefined what a “food establishment” was. But in doing so, it inadvertently banned such events as church potlucks and meals served after church funerals. The legislature had to go back later and fix the law’s language.

Miller cited that experience. “I don't know that we’ll get into more regulation; we may get in to more education,” she said. “I think that’s probably something we can do that would be more palatable than regulation, but that’s yet to be decided.”

The state health department has until the end of October to make its recommendations to the commission on any potential changes to the state’s food-safety laws.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indiana

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