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Gold Seal Food Facility Inspection Program

State: CA Type: Promising Practice Year: 2019

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Monterey County Health Department (CA), Environmental Health Bureau (EHB)
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Gold Seal Food Facility Inspection Program

Monterey County, California, has a population of 437,907. Agriculture in Monterey County is a $8 billion-dollar industry, and the surrounding Salinas Valley is known as the Salad Bowl of the World.” Overall, 55% of the population is Hispanic/Latino, 33% are White (not Hispanic), 6% are Asian, 3% are Black/African American, and the remaining 3% are Other with 53% of the population not speaking English at home. Monterey County has a 17% poverty rate, 1 in 3 residents are on Medi-Cal, and 1 in 10 of the county's public school children are homeless. Monterey County Health Department (MCHD) tackles diverse health issues reflective of its diverse population. 

MCHD's Gold Seal Inspection Program was designed in collaboration with the Food Safety Advisory Council of Monterey County (FSAC). The Gold Seal Inspection program was developed as an alternative to a food facility grading system. The California Uniform Retail Food Law (CURFL) now the California Retail Food Code (Cal-Code) allowed local for a food facility a grading or evaluation system. FSAC and county staff collaborated with development of a Gold Seal program as an evaluation system/incentive program rather than a grading system denoting food violation scoring criteria. Food culture awareness also brought a desire to have more information regarding the health and safety of food facilities and information on any existing major and minor violations. The goal of the Gold Seal program is to encourage substantial compliance with Cal-Code and for facilities to utilize active managerial control, by food preparation and serving establishments. The program helps consumers identify facilities that meet or exceed the food safety requirements of Cal-Code on a consistent basis.  All operating food facilities are considered to meet food safety requirements if they are in operation. Those food facilities with substantial compliance over time are awarded the Gold Seal.

Participation in the Gold Seal Program is voluntary. Health-permitted retail establishments that have a food preparation area, such as a commercial level kitchen, restaurant, or deli, are given the opportunity to participate. Environmental Health promotes the program in the field, online and during the permitting process.  Issuance of a Gold Seal requires a history of substantial compliance. A file review is conducted and if the facility is new, two routine unannounced inspections within a 12-month period to establish a history of compliance. Not all volunteer participants start in the program with a Gold Seal. A Gold Seal cannot be issued if there are significant, major violations observed during routine inspections. If a Gold Seal is removed after major violations are observed, the Gold Seal can be earned back after re-establishing a history of compliance through at least two unannounced routine inspections. The Gold Seal must be earned as there is no entitlement as in the assignment of a grade.

The Gold Seal can be displayed by the facility owner and serves as a tool for the public to be aware of and educated about food safety and food-borne illnesses. Other rating programs were evaluated and found to discourage positive actions and clouded educational opportunities for food facility operators. There is misinterpretations and confusion the meaning of a rating, grade. or color code. Further, the issuance of grades based on scoring may be influenced or contested by food operators and the inspection staff may be pressured to provide higher scores resulting in higher grades.

As an alternative to prior practices, the Gold Seal program was developed by staff and implemented in June 2005. The criteria for a Gold Seal award was the facility meeting and sustaining substantial compliance with the California Retail Food Code following a complete unannounced inspection conducted by a Registered Environmental Health Specialist (REHS). Specific criteria in the inspection report must be met to qualify for a Seal. Following a complete inspection, if a food facility has been determined to be in Substantial Compliance” with the California Health and Safety Code, the Environmental Health Specialist will print the name of the facility, inspector's name, and date on the Gold Seal and issue it to the food facility. Substantial compliance includes:

  • Demonstration of food safety knowledge
  • Employee Health and Hygiene Practices
  • Time and Temperature Relationships
    • Holding temperatures within legal requirements
    • Cooking temperatures meeting regulatory requirements
  • Protection from contamination
  • Food from approved sources and conformance with approved procedures
  • Highly susceptible population such as schools and skilled nursing facilities
  • Potable water/hot water required
  • Liquid Waste Disposal system/Storm Water Compliance
  • No more than 5 non-critical/minor violations or other health and safety issues at the discretion of the Department
    • Supervision, Personal Cleanliness, General Food Safety Requirements
    • Food Storage/Display/Service, Equipment/Utensils/Linens
    • Physical Facilities: plumbing, garbage, toilet facilities
    • Permanent Food Facilities: floors, walls, and ceilings
    • Signs Requirements/Compliance and Enforcement

Lastly, there shall be no critical major violations as listed on the inspection report form.

The program is voluntary for food facilities. The simplicity and iconic appearance of the seal gives quick assurance to the public that health and safety standards have been met; the list of compliance items is easy for facility staff to understand.

The program has largely been successful because the Gold Seal stands out on the wall of a facility, the standards are met are easy to understand, facility managers and owners learn how to improve their food safety and handling, and the program is easy to communicate to the media and the public. This program has had significant public health impact as evidenced by the improvement in facilities meeting the criteria, indicating substantial compliance with food safety standards is occurring in Monterey County which should result in less food borne illness outbreaks associated with food facility-related exposures.

Website for the program is: http://www.co.monterey.ca.us/government/departments-a-h/health/environmental-health/consumer-health-protection/food/gold-seal-program

The CDC estimates that 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths are due to foodborne diseases annually in the United States. A foodborne disease outbreak is defined as two or more cases of a similar illness resulting from ingestion of a common food. Among outbreaks reporting a single location of preparation, restaurants were the most common location reported from 2009-2015. Improved food handling and compliance with established safe handling techniques is a known method for reducing the potential for foodborne disease outbreaks.

Consumer Health Protection Services Specialists of the Monterey County Health Department Environmental Health Bureau are tasked with conducting routine inspections of food serving facilities to ensure compliance with state food handling standards to reduce the potential for foodborne disease outbreaks. The target population is two-fold: facility workers who engage in food preparation and all restaurant, food truck and food facility customers. In addition to our local population, Monterey County attracts nearly 4.5 million visitors annually.

Prior to the development of the Gold Seal program, the only way that county residents or visitors would know if a food serving facility was compliant with all inspection criteria was by looking for or asking to see the most recent inspection permit, or calling the Bureau to ask for the most recent inspection results.  Now the Gold Seal is a quick and easy way to reference for anyone entering the facility. It is an innovative practice in that prior to this, most members of the public would not notice or know what the permit represented.  A large, visible Gold Seal is an easier to understand symbol and a less confusing way to display compliance with standards compared to an A, B, C or red, yellow, or green rating. It promotes a sense of security to eat at the restaurant and encourages food facilities to take immediate action on complaints in order to not ‘tarnish' their Gold Seal. It also encourages involvement between customers and restaurant owners due to its visibility and the ‘status' of having achieved a ‘Gold' level of compliance.

The Gold Seal Program was developed by Environmental Health Bureau staff and FSAC members in response to public requests for an easier way to know if a restaurant has met health standards. This program was modeled after a similar program from Orange County developed prior to 2005. The Gold Seal recognizes the education of food serving handlers and the encouragement of active managerial control, which comes along as part of the inspection process, is an evidence-based practice to reduce foodborne illness outbreaks.

The Gold Seal Program is evidence-based, as it takes the "Be Food Safe" prevention approach recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The goal of the program is to encourage substantial compliance by food serving establishments with mandated food handling and serving laws. The program helps consumers identify facilities that meet or exceed environmental health standards based on state laws. Initial implementation steps included researching what other counties did for a restaurant rating system, discussing a potential restaurant rating system with various industry leaders, and presenting the developing system to key community leaders and elected officials for feedback. The process of obtaining buy in took approximately one year, followed by a year of inspections and rolling out the initial awards. The phased-in approach resulted in a greater understanding on the part of food service operators that Gold Seal a recognition program, rather than a punitive program or grading system that may appear as punitive based on the grade issued. Thus, the development of the Gold Seal Program was a collaborative effort between the local regulated food industry and the Monterey County Health Department's Environmental Health Bureau, and more importantly, the Food Safety Advisory Council who voiced strong support for the Gold Seal program. The perspective of the routine health inspection providing incentives rather than setting the stage for adversarial conflict came from the FSAC membership comprised of the food service industry. The incentive approach is what resonates more with the service industry and based on their feedback the Gold Seal program fit that model.

There were no substantial startup costs for the program since the Environmental Health Director and senior staff conducted their phased in approach as part of regular interactions with key collaborators. There is an annual and minor printing cost for the Gold Seals. 

Approximately 2,620 food service facilities were inspected in FY 2017-18, and of these, 1,481 are facilities eligible for the Gold Seal; the remainder of the facilities are mobile food units, temporary food facilities and other seasonal permits. Currently 981 Gold Seals that have been issued, representing 66% of all eligible facilities attaining substantial compliance with food safety standards. We have seen a 48% increase in the number of Gold Seals awarded in the past two years. From The goal for 2018-19 is to continue promotion of the Gold Seal inspection program to attain a higher increase in the total number of food facilities, meeting Gold Seal criteria.

The 981 food facilities that now display the Gold Seal, all have voluntarily participated in the program. We count the voluntary participation as a testament of program satisfaction and commitment for food safety practices on the part of county food facilities. From its inception, the Gold Seal program experienced positive media from local newspapers, and our county residents and visitors can browse through the entire list of current Gold Seal holders on the Gold Seal webpage, or search for a business by name, street name, or wildcard matches. The EHB has also created a free restaurant inspection results app (Monterey County Food Inspection Findings) for iPhone and Android, which has been well received by the public.

The Gold Seal Program is part and parcel of routine food service facility inspections throughout Monterey County, and anecdotally, has been very well received by food service operators.  It has become an accepted and recognizable program that would be noticed if it was discontinued. No cost/benefit analysis of the practice has been done, as food service inspections are part of the essential services of county health departments. However, there were very minimal costs for program implementations, amounting to the nominal cost of printing the Gold Seals themselves.  The continued success and acceptance of the program has made it a foundational program element for food safety recognition and will continue to be a major part of our food inspection program.

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