A new food safety program rolled out by the state Department of Health on Monday may have you doing a double take as you enter your favorite restaurant or walk up to your food truck of choice.
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The color-coded program uses green, yellow and red placards to designate the number of violations at each individual establishment. The placards must be displayed prominently where customers can see them.
"It's easy for the inspectors as well as ... for the public to understand what the grades mean," said Peter Oshiro, chief of the Department of Health's Sanitation Branch.
A green placard means an eatery has no more than one critical violation at the time of inspection that must be immediately corrected. Yellow means two or more critical violations, while red signifies a restaurant is shut down because it poses an imminent health risk.
Under the program a restaurant designated yellow will be automatically revisited by an inspector within two business days. However, a restaurant can request a follow-up inspection within 24 hours.
"The object is not for us to leave these yellow placards up as long as possible, it's to get the violation corrected as quickly as possible," said Oshiro. As of late Monday afternoon, six restaurants on Oahu were designated green, while another six received yellow marks. Those that were rated yellow include GRYLT, Nico's, Uncle's, Café Julia, Grand Cage and Bakery and La Tour.
Scratch Kitchen and Bake Shop in Chinatown was one of the six restaurants to receive a green placard. Owner Brian Chan believes the new system of self-policing is a big improvement.
"I think it'll make all restaurants in Hawaii be accountable for the cleanliness of their kitchen," said Chan. "There could be a negative impact for the business, but it makes it more urgent to correct the situation."
The new program also has more stringent requirements for food storage, food handling and hand washing. The health of employees will also be considered during inspections.
"It's real critical now that the managers and owners of a facility have a conversation with all the employees, so employees know they must not report to work if they have any type of gastrointestinal symptoms, which basically means any vomiting or diarrhea in the last 72 hours," said Oshiro.
The new food safety program increases the average fee for a Department of Health permit from $46 to $200, although some establishments may pay as much as $600 depending on which of the 49 new categories of food establishments they fall under. Money from the higher fees will be used to hire six more inspectors on Oahu, bringing the total number of inspectors statewide to 31. During the height of budget cuts instituted by former Gov. Linda Lingle, the Health Department had as little as nine inspectors in the field.
"So, this staffing level as opposed to having nine in the field, will allow us to do inspections of high-risk facilities three times a year, medium-risk facilities twice a year and low-risk facilities annually," said Oshiro. "So, this is a big improvement from where we were previously where we were probably inspecting facilities one every two to 2 1/2 years."
The Hawaii Restaurant Association with more than 3,500 members statewide and the visitor lobby both support the state's new initiative, which is modeled after an award-winning program in Sacramento County, California.
"We realize a big part of the visitor experience is the food experience, so it's very, very important to us," said George Szigeti, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.