SAN FRANCISCO More than 520 restaurant operators across California were notified Tuesday that their employees’ food-safety certification is no longer valid because of inappropriate testing and certification procedures by three moonlighting food inspectors.
The investigation by the San Francisco Department of Health and the city attorney’s office has raised questions about how well the certification organizations are monitoring the performance of those who administer food-safety exams — including the National Restaurant Association ServSafe program and the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals.
California law requires that all restaurants have at least one employee that has passed an accredited food-safety certification exam.
San Francisco health officials said an anonymous tip in December resulted in an investigation of cheating allegations that revealed “significant irregularities” by the three Department of Public Health employees, who were giving the food-safety certification tests without the authority of the department. The three inspectors in question have not been identified.
In some cases, the inspectors are alleged to have given certifications to people who never took the exam, in others those taking the test were supplied with correct answers before or during the exam. City officials declared all certifications given by the three as invalid, regardless of whether the specific employee was found to have cheated.
Two of the inspectors are no longer employed by the city, and a third is still under investigation.
Those whose certification was revoked have 60 days to become recertified, health officials said, and the restaurants may remain open during the process. The restaurant operators also have the option of informing the health department that another employee holds a valid certification.
No wrongdoing on the part of the restaurants or the individual certification holders is alleged, health officials said.
“Because the reliability of food safety certifications is essential to public health, the department has determined that the above certification is no longer valid,” said Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, director of Occupational and Environmental Health for the city health department. “We understand that obtaining a new certification is time-consuming and that the need to do so in the next 60 days may be frustrating. However, we hope that your business shares the department’s commitment to meeting the highest standards regarding food safety, and trust that you understand the importance of ensuring that all retail food establishments have reliable food safety certification.”
Larry Lynch, president of the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals, which approves certification exam proctors, said the exam-giving privileges of the three inspectors were revoked last year after it was learned they were moonlighting in violation of their employee contracts with the San Francisco Department of Health.
Lynch, however, noted that the registry’s own investigation has revealed nothing unusual that would indicate cheating and that San Francisco health officials may ultimately be held liable for their allegations.
David Gilbert, the NRA’s chief operating officer, said in a statement that the association shares the San Francisco city attorney’s concern about potential abuses and that the association has been working with investigators on the case.
“Food safety is our paramount concern,” said Gilbert. “We remain confident that the quality of ServSafe curriculum continues to be the ‘best practice’ for the industry, as evidenced by the thousands of individuals certified in California and the tens of thousands of individuals certified nationwide each month. Those individuals play a critical role in the safe preparation of restaurant meals across the country, and we will continue to work to ensure that they have complete confidence in the effectiveness and integrity of the program.”
About 345 San Francisco-area restaurants on Tuesday were notified that their food-safety managers may no longer hold valid certification, as well as at least 183 outside of San Francisco. Officials said they had no address on an additional 78 certification holders impacted.
San Francisco health officials have also sent letters to their counterparts in 57 other counties in California that are likely to be affected. Because such certification is portable to other states, untold numbers of restaurants outside California may be impacted as well.
The restaurants impacted are listed on the San Francisco city attorney’s office website at http://www.sfcityattorney.org/index.aspx?page=187. Among them are units of major chains such as Burger King, McDonald’s, Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits, Johnny Rockets and Round Table Pizza, as well as independents and smaller multi-unit concepts such as Crepevine and Squat & Gobble Cafe & Crepery.