County health services division criticized over enforcement of retail food act

August 08, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

Amid claims of inconsistent enforcement and abusive inspectors, the county Health Department's environmental health services division agreed to change its ways.

The department was criticized at Tuesday's county Board of Supervisors meeting for the way in which the environmental health services division has implemented the state's new uniform retail food facilities act.

Numerous members of community organizations told the supervisors that continued enforcement at the current level would devastate the fund-raising ability of the nonprofit groups, and in return, the amount of money they provide to local causes would be devastated.

The issue was brought to the board by District 4 Supervisor Gary Wyatt, who said there is a problem with environmental health services' implementation and enforcement. He said there are many ways to apply the new state law, such as enforcing the spirit of the law or enforcing the letter of the law.


"Your department has a great deal of flexibility," Wyatt told county Director of Public Health Yvonne Smith. "We're creating a huge dilemma where none existed before."

Smith said when the law became effective on Jan. 1, 2000, she knew the issue would be a sensitive one because of all the people who volunteer for community work throughout the state.

"We did not write the law. We did not vote on the law, but it is our charge," Smith said.

She said the issue is one of protecting the public health.

Supervisors Chairman Tony Tirado said there were problems when the Calexico Chamber of Commerce sought to offer food at its annual Fourth of July festivities.

The county's enforcement of the issue reportedly resulted in only two food vendors at the event, with similar results at the city's Cinco de Mayo party.

Cathy Kennerson, chief executive officer of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, said the chamber and environmental health personnel were working together to implement the changes in time for Independence Day celebrations, but then a different county inspector showed up at the event and was abusive toward the public to the point that others had to intervene.

In addition, she said some of the new rules violate fire department rules.

Kennerson suggested the new rules be ignored until discrepancies can be resolved.

Bob Ham, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business of Imperial County, said the intent of the legislation was to regulate food businesses but that nonprofits were erroneously added at the last minute. When the error was discovered the legislation had already become law. The law was intended to be changed but was done to only allow nonprofits to not comply with the law at one function per year.

He said before the law was enacted, nobody inspected the food offered for sale at community fund raisers.

"We don't need government to be our nannies," Ham said, adding that the Board of Supervisors directs county staff to review the effects of the law's local enforcement. "As consumers, we can take care of ourselves."

Others community group representatives who commented on the level of enforcement or level of implementation were from the Holtville and Brawley chambers of commerce, local Soroptimists, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association of Calipatria State Prison, El Centro schools, the Westmorland Lions Club, Brawley Union High School and the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Imperial Valley.

The board was told that profits can be completely lost when nonprofits are required to build temporary enclosures to satisfy certain rules, such as governing flies.

Tom Wolf, director of county Environmental Health Services, said the complaints were nothing he has not already heard. He said he cannot overlook the law and has no choice but to enforce it.

Smith suggested she hold a meeting with the environmental health staff to improve communications with the public and to improve county staff's attitudes.

County Executive Officer Ann Capela directed Smith to report the results of the meeting.

The law affects all potentially hazardous food, hygiene standards, certain equipment, a minimum number of toilets, janitorial facilities, liquid waste facilities, that potable water be available, pre-packaged food, non-pre-packaged food, hand and utensil washing and length of operation, among many other issues.

A violation of the new law can result in a fine up to $1,000 and/or jail for as long as six months.

Strict enforcement began locally on Jan. 1, 2001.

Staff Writer Rudy Yniguez can be reached at 337-3440.

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