Sebastopol firm trains workers how to prevent food-borne illnesses

Food service workers in Hawaii receive food safety training from Sebastopol's ATC in October 2016. (ATC)

CYNTHIA SWEENEY,

Most foodservice workers in the U.S. are required to obtain a certificate that proves they have taken a safety class that gives them at least the basic knowledge of how to safely handle food.

The classes are usually presented with dry, boring, regulatory language, however, and by people who, historically, do not have actual experience in the industry. This makes it tough on chefs, servers and others from the food service industry to get much out of the training, according to April Rivas, who with her business partner run ATC, a food safety training company based in Sebastopol.

And that can cause workers to make mistakes on the job, which costs businesses money.

“There are a lot of bad trainers out there. The classes are taught by regulators or dietitians doing it on the side, and tend to read right from power points or textbooks and can’t provide real life examples of challenges in the industry. They don’t understand it’s Friday night and you’ve got tables to turn,” Rivas said. “There are no regulators regulating the trainers.”

So Rivas and her team are doing it differently. They keep classes small, eight–12 people, and cater to the needs of the customer.

“We ask, ‘What’s the real practical application of this particular regulation?’” Rivas said.

All 10 trainers have extensive experience in the food industry, and bring real life experience to the safety training.

They know what can, and does, go wrong.

ATC holds one-day classes locally in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties. The company also travels extensively, and within the past year, have gone national, holding regular monthly classes in 17 states including Hawaii.

Encountering the problem

Recently, Rivas was eating sliders at a restaurant and asked the server how they were cooked:

“The waiter said, ‘We serve them medium-rare, but you know what? It’s grass-fed beef, so pretty much you can eat it raw, and it’s safe.’ I just about had a heart attack. This was a server at a high-end restaurant telling us this. He really believed that because this was grass-fed, it’s free of any kind of pathogen that can make you sick.” But that’s not the case. Just because the product is organic, free range, or grass-fed, doesn’t make it anymore safe if not prepared correctly, Rivas said.

Many of ATC’s clients are referrals from the county of Sonoma, after getting in trouble with their health permit, Rivas said. While many food-safety violations are minor, many are serious.

Foodborne illness results in costs of $7.7 billion to $23 billion per year to consumers, the food industry and the national economy, according to the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

Norovirus is a highly contagious and common virus that infects between 19 million and 21 million people per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and low-grade fever.

It is easily spread when a person who is ill prepares food, does not wash hands before preparing food or does not properly sanitize the work surfaces touched. Fruits and vegetables can also be contaminated in the field — though contamination in the kitchen is more common.

The Chipotle problem

The Chipotle franchise is a good example. The company suffered huge losses in 2015, when it was hit by a string of widely publicized food sickness outbreaks. The chain experienced repeated outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella and norovirus in a six-month period, forcing it to temporarily close more than 2,000 locations in February 2016.

There were issues of tainted food, but the on-going outbreaks were more than that, Rivas said.

“It was a real systemic, cultural problem,” she said. “With Chipotle a lot of it was norovirus. We saw it over and over and over again. And norovirus is (spread by) employees working sick. If somebody has diarrhea or is vomiting, they should not be working around food.”

But workers who need the hours will “power through” an illness, and owners, thinking about sales volume, don’t understand these things make a difference.

“What are the (company) guidelines for sick employees? You’re just endangering the public when you let them work like that,” Rivas said.

Previous to the outbreaks, Rivas saw a lot of startup franchise owners looking to Chipotle as a business model. Its downfall was a wakeup call.

While Chipotle can survive a big setback like that, small startups can’t.

“The issue is, ‘Yes, we don’t want to be the next Chipotle,’ but then where do you go for help?” Rivas said.

Consulting on food safety

In addition to food safety classes, ATC consults with small- to mid-sized companies, helping entrepreneurs develop a food-safety plan, cost analysis, write a menu, conduct third-party audits and manage regulatory issues.

“It’s easy to find consultants who do large-volume manufacturing, like for Amy’s (Natural) Foods, because there is a lot of money in that. It’s not very easy to find consultants who do the scale that we do, which is more catered to the small business or startups,” Rivas said. “Businesses want a private party come in and say, ‘Hey, how are we doing? Give us an update.’ They don’t want to wait for the health department to write an infraction on their report. They want some feedback.”

At a restaurant in Berkeley, ATC advised the company the way they were storing their sauces wasn’t at the right temperature.

Another business started bottling their marinara sauce for sale, without realizing they need a whole separate set of permits to do that.

Amazon and Starbucks, which have gotten into the home food-delivery business, require a third-party audit for retail food operators.

“Operators have no idea what half the stuff on their checklist is. ‘What do you mean I have to get lab results confirming the shelf-life of my products?’” Rivas said.

New regulations from the FDA

In September, Rivas was invited to lead a presentation for U.S Department of Agriculture regulators, food scientists and inspectors to better understand the training that food industry workers are receiving.

Various federal committees meet every two years at the Conference for Food Protection to propose new directions for regulation and make suggestions to the Food and Drug Administration on how to move forward with certain issues. Based on these advisories, the FDA makes new code changes to its Model Food Code every four years. The next one comes out at the end of this year.

Rivas’s audience were scientists, those who write food regulations and a few international inspectors. She asked the group to step out of their regulatory offices for the day and role-play the part of a front-line food industry workers. They were assigned a fake name, profession and typical questions students would have in the regular classroom.

“Rainbow,” a natural foods store owner, inquired about selling raw milk. “Linda,” a food truck owner, asked about using one hand for money and one gloved hand for food handling.

Rivas also introduced a phrase she has coined to call attention to shigella, a very contagious intestinal disease commonly spread by even just a tiny amount of fecal matter on the hands.

ATC uses “Sh*gella Happens!” to remind workers to wash their hands. The phrase is especially effectual with volunteer workers.

ATC is working with food banks in Alameda County, which has more than 200 different sites. It provides free training on how to safely use salvaged products, while catering to a high-risk population.

“You have challenges of volunteers who are not around all the time to train. The single biggest impact you can make with volunteers is teaching them how to wash their hands properly,” Rivas said. “Students love it. They say, ‘Oh, now I’ll never forget it. Shigella happens, so wash your hands.’”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.