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Why are food handler permit violations so common?

By Mike Genet

Sift through enough restaurant inspections, and one will find several types of violations that appear often and can be corrected on the spot or soon after.

Food at an improper temperature. Raw meats stored above items they shouldn’t be above. Dirt or ice buildup in places. Unlabeled bottles of cleaning liquids. The hand washing sink is partially blocked.

Some things, like a refrigerator or freezer not working well enough, take longer to correct.

But another common violation is one often rectified or avoided outside the kitchen – lack of food handler permit cards, many times for several employees. 

When health inspectors pay their normal visits and ask to see those required cards, sometimes an employee or several doesn’t have one yet. Or the employee cards aren’t easily accessed and can’t be produced that day. 

Local officials say oftentimes it’s a paper trail issue, more so than lack of actual training. That basic food handler training, necessary to receive the permit, can help stave off many safety issues, they say.

Over the past six months, from Feb. 5 going back to Aug. 10 last year, Jackson County inspectors noted 52 instances of food handler permit violations during inspections in Blue Springs, and three each in Grain Valley and Oak Grove. Only a handful of times did it involve just one employee, and five teams the violation involved 20 or more individuals. The highest was 36.

In 2021, through the beginning of February, county inspectors noted 49 food handler permit violations around the county outside of Kansas City and Independence.

“A lot of times there’s a problem with cards being locked up, and the manager’s not there that day – that seems to be the most common problem,” says Deb Sees, environmental health administrator for the county. “We have been seeing a little more of it lately. Places had to hire people quickly to keep up with COVID rules.”

Sees says her inspectors find restaurants in compliance more often than not. But Dianne Egger, environmental compliance manager for the city of Independence, said it’s a “very common” violation that she sees.

“Just in my experience, it’s well more than half the time,” Egger said, “even if it’s just one person. A lot of times, restaurants get busy and they don’t have them on file.” 

Full compliance, with no permit issues, isn’t that common, she said.

Egger recalls one time in the early 2000s when a restaurant had 50 employees without handler cards. Even with the city giving that establishment time to correct the problem, it still had to close for a period, she said.

In 2019, Independence investigators documented 221 violations involving food handler or food manager permits. In 2020, with inspections done less frequently due to the pandemic, they noted 126 such violations. Again, Egger noted, many times the violation involved multiple cards.

The main reasons inspectors often come across for food handler permit violations: 

• Establishments have difficulty getting previous employees who already have cards to return to work.

• The employee on duty at the establishment does not know where the manager keeps the permit cards, which Sees says is most common. In that case, the issue gets rectified the next day.

• Management hired people quickly to fill vacancies, and the employees haven’t had time to get the card. Egger notes that restaurants have notoriously high turnover rates, and it’s not unheard of to have a whole new crew at once.

• Employees have not been working and need to earn some money to pay for the card.

Whatever the reason, neither Egger or Sees believe it shows a kitchen work issue as much as paperwork.

“It’s not necessarily indicative of bad food handling,” Sees said.

In Independence and Jackson County, employees have 15 days from the date of their hire to obtain a permit card. Both jurisdictions offer an online food handler course to earn that card, and cards obtained through one are good for the other under an area reciprocity agreement. For an employee to get a permit online, it’s $25. The county also offers an in-person class for $15.

When Jackson County inspectors do an audit on food handler cards, they allow an establishment at least 30 days to become compliant, with some flexibility if requested. With Independence, the timeline is two weeks. Many times, Sees said, the cards get produced the next day.

“If they don’t give them over,” she said, “then we do an re-inspection and they get charged a re-inspection fee.”

“We check (for the cards) every time, and we inspect four times a year. The more repetitive we are with those audits, the better they are with having everything organized and ready.”

While permit cards are often a paperwork issue that does not necessarily indicate poor food handling, both Egger and Sees say the course to obtain that card often pays off in avoiding other food issues.

“It does educate the young kids, the things they can do to prevent food-borne illness,” Sees said.

Adds Egger, “If they walk away just knowing how important it is to have food at the proper temperature, and to wash their hands – the most common cause of foodborne illnesses is dirty hands.”