Monterey County Environmental Health Food Safety Conference: An Idea, a Leap, and a Difference

By Robin Kimball, Management Analyst II, Monterey County Environmental Health Bureau

Editors’ Note: NACCHO recognized Montery County’s Food Safety Conference as a 2019 Model Practice. Applications for 2020 Model Practices are open until Dec. 30, 2019. Learn more.

A Big Idea

The Monterey County Health Department’s Environmental Health Bureau (MCEHB) has been making a difference in the world of food safety, one big idea at a time. The Monterey County Food Safety Conference was created with the goal of reducing the prevalence of foodborne illness by educating food service workers on safe food handling practices and providing food facility owners and operators a forum to obtain new information on food safety laws and regulations from regulatory agencies. Through MCEHB’s Consumer Health Protection Services program and a collaboration of the Food Safety Advisory Council of Monterey County (FSAC), consumers, and government agencies, the first Food Safety Conference launched in 2008, and its success continues today.

The Leap

In September 2005, a proclamation was submitted by MCEHB to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors designating September as Monterey County Food Safety Month. The purpose of Food Safety Month is to heighten awareness of the importance of food safety education as a means of prevention, and it mirrors the National Food Safety Month designation first introduced in 1995 by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

Taking another leap forward, MCEHB then proposed to work collaboratively with partnering agencies in providing a venue of speakers to establish the first Monterey County Food Safety Conference in 2008, bringing expertise from all areas of the food industry to reach attendees who work directly with food service. The conference presented food safety from the perspective of prevention rather than enforcement. The inaugural conference attracted 104 members of the local community, and it quickly became apparent that the conference was to be an annual event. MCEHB seized the opportunity to bring together those that are directly involved in food preparation and the agencies and organizations that regulate and enforce safe food practices. Eleven years later, the conference has been attended by as many as 250 food facility participants, and preparations are in full swing for this year’s conference.

The overall theme of the free four-hour conference is “Working Together for Food Safety,” with a different topical theme selected each year, placing an emphasis on food safety education for the restaurant and foodservice industry, while simultaneously raising the public’s level of confidence in the industry’s commitment to food safety. The conference is presented in English and Spanish to food facility owners, supervisors, and kitchen staff, in collaboration with related food safety organizations and private businesses that work to assure safe food handling environments.

Evolving Ideas

As the conference has progressed over the years, an important evolving feature is the Award of Excellence, which recognizes an outstanding local food service facility that continually excels in food safety practices. The goal of the award is to encourage and recognize facilities that pride themselves on innovation while maintaining the principals of safe food handling. To be nominated for the award, a food service facility must exemplify the highest standards of food safety in their profession and have maintained a MCEHB “Gold Seal” designation for at least five continuous years. They also must promote food safety practices (such as utilizing the “No Bare Hand Contact” practice), model commitment to food safety practice sustainability, be a positive role model of food safety, and maintain food service activity for five years without uncorrected major violations for at least three inspections at the time of nomination.

Nominees are submitted to a panel for selection of the top three recipients, and the winners are announced and presented awards at the Food Safety Conference. A press release announcing the winners and all nominees is circulated to the media and posted on the Monterey County Health Department website.

In a county known for being the “Salad Bowl of the World,” as well as a tourist destination that attracts nearly 4.5 million visitors each year to the beautiful and incomparable Central Coast and marine sanctuary, the MCEHB works to protect these industries as well as its residents to prevent foodborne illnesses and outbreaks.

Annually, an estimated one in six Americans (48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from eating contaminated food. Local environmental health departments, by nature of their responsibilities to enforce and regulate public health codes, inspect food facilities for sanitary and safe food preparation practices. MCEHB chooses to go beyond regulation by providing educational opportunities and establishing working relationships with the regulated industry and FSAC.

“Americans have a heightened awareness of food safety now more than ever before, and, through National Food Safety Education Month and our annual Food Safety Conference, we have the opportunity to highlight restaurant and foodservice industry accomplishments in educating employees and the public on proper food safety procedures.”

–  John Ramirez, Director of Monterey County Environmental Health Bureau

The Difference: An Ounce of Prevention…

While the conference themes and specific topics change from year to year, evidence-based practices that address the top five food safety risk factors are always discussed. Using these areas as targets for educational outreach and comparing them to data collected from inspections, monitoring is made possible for the occurrence of violations in these areas:

  • Improper hot/cold holding temperatures of potentially hazardous food
  • Improper cooking temperatures of food
  • Dirty and/or contaminated utensils and equipment
  • Poor employee health and hygiene
  • Food from unsafe sources

As a result, analysis of recent violation data indicates a steady decline, from 3,813 total food facility violations in FY 2012-13 to 1,441 in FY 2015-16, which is a 38% reduction in violations over that time. While food safety efforts include many other outreach and education efforts including inspections, meeting with food facility operations to assess practices, and offering food safety training classes in English and Spanish for food service workers, the conference has been determined to be a major factor in attaining these results.

An ounce of prevention, truly, is worth a pound of cure.

Learn more about the Monterey County Food Safety Conference.

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