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No opposition to county food inspection frequencies update

Thursday, January 24, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

In the absence of County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, the Travis County Commissioners Court talked food Tuesday morning.

Following the city’s implementation of a risk-based food inspection system last November, Austin Public Health is now asking Travis County to do the same. Don Hastings, APH assistant director of Environmental Health Services, presented the model to the court during Tuesday’s public hearing.

Known simply as inspection frequency standard, this methodology determines the frequency of inspections of fixed food establishments – i.e., brick-and-mortar restaurants – based primarily on the risk of foodborne illness. The United States Food and Drug Administration unveiled IFS approximately 12 years ago and it is now recommended as a best practice by the FDA and Centers for Disease Control.

Food establishment permitting and inspection in Travis County is conducted by APH through an interlocal agreement with the city of Austin.

Unincorporated Travis County dining establishments are all currently subject to two inspections per year. If IFS is adopted, however, each establishment will be placed into one of nine risk categories that will determine the number of inspections required for that establishment each year.

Restaurants deemed higher-risk based on the type of foods served and food preparation methods will typically be subject to three inspections per year unless scores are consistently high enough to merit a biannual routine inspection schedule. Medium-risk establishments would be inspected twice a year but that number may increase or decrease by one depending on average inspection score over a 24-month period. Lower-risk establishments, like coffee shops or convenience stores, would only require one annual inspection unless scores dropped below an average of 80 percent over a 24-month period, in which case they would temporarily adopt a biannual inspection schedule.

While the frequency of inspections may increase or decrease depending on the establishment, the process of food inspection relating to food safety criteria will remain unchanged.

According to Hastings, APH has already been classifying restaurants based on these variables for a while.

“Knowing that this new inspection methodology is best practice being adopted across the country, starting four, five and six years ago, depending on the area of Travis County, we started classifying fixed food establishments as to which of the nine risk categories they fall into,” he said.

The model also entails changes to permit fees. Yearly permit fees in Travis County are currently calculated on a sliding scale from $250 to $300 based solely on number of employees. Adoption of IFS would mean a slight increase in fees for larger, higher-risk establishments while smaller, lower-risk restaurants could pay about $25 less for yearly permits.

Hastings said the change in permit fees could result in a very modest revenue increase due to the greater number of higher-risk compared to lower-risk establishments. “It’s basically revenue neutral,” he said.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion expressed concern for business owners who may be blindsided by the change and therefore put at risk of being found out of compliance.

Hastings said APH invited 450 unincorporated Travis County food establishment business owners to a stakeholder meeting at the Travis County Community Center in Pflugerville on Jan. 15. Of those 450 invitees, however, only two were present at the meeting.

Nonetheless, Hastings said that between the outreach done when the city of Austin adopted IFS and the outreach done now for unincorporated Travis County, community engagement has been considerable.

“Thus far, we’ve had questions, but we haven’t registered any opposition because, I believe, the restaurant community understands that they care about foodborne illness as well and they want to do anything, undertake any new program, that would reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses being generated in Travis County restaurants,” he said.

Reinforcing Hastings’ point, Gwen Meighan, supervisor of APH Environmental Health Services, said that fixed food establishment owners are prepared for the change.

“We have been doing these inspection frequency reports for the last three or four years, so all the restaurant people in the county are aware of what’s going on.”

The changes will only apply to fixed food establishments. Mobile food trucks and temporary food vendors are regulated separately by the city of Austin.

If approved next week, the new methodology will take effect on April 1 Nov. 21 of this year.

Photo by: CDC/Amanda Mills, Courtesy: Public Health Image Library.

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