Eating out in South Carolina could become a less risky proposition if the state adopts an overhauled food code now under consideration by the S.C. Board of Health and Environmental Control.
The board today will decide whether to ask for public comment on a completely rewritten set of restaurant regulations. South Carolina last amended its code governing food safety in 1995.
“We’re lagging behind Georgia and Tennessee and North Carolina,” complains Frank Lee, executive chef of Slightly North of Broad and Old Village Post House. Lee strongly supports the new regulations, which cover holding temperatures, record keeping, raw food handling, manager training and sanitation, among other restaurant practices.
“It will add layers of expense, but, you know, compared to what?” Lee says. “If someone, God forbid, has a serious occurrence in your restaurant, suddenly the extra layer might not seem like much.”
Lee cited a recent E. coli outbreak in California as evidence of the havoc restaurants can wreak if they don’t conform to hygienic standards. According to Food Safety News, one death and 50 serious illnesses have been conclusively linked to food served at U.S. restaurants since the start of September.
Jim Beasley, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Environmental Control, says the proposed guidelines — the result of a yearslong drafting process — hew closely to the federal food code, which has been updated multiple times since South Carolina last amended its rules. Because the state code went unchanged for so long, DHEC had to grant deviations to restaurants wanting to serve raw milk or permit pets on their patios; those issues are explicitly addressed by the new code.
“We believe that updating our state code will make the dining experience safer and make our regulations more consistent with federal guidelines,” Beasley says.
The current draft incorporates feedback from members of the restaurant community, including Lee, who asked for provisions allowing restaurants to serve raw wild fish and wild mushrooms gathered by expert foragers.
“I don’t want any stoner out there grabbing mushrooms under oaks,” Lee says. “A lot of people who go out and pick mushrooms don’t appear to be trained mycologists, but I’m all for foraging.”
According to Beasley, the code under review “requires each (wild) mushroom to be individually inspected and found to be safe by an approved mushroom identification expert.” As for the raw wild fish on Lee’s wish list, restaurants would be allowed to serve them so long as they issue a customer advisory.
“These things can be dangerous, but people should make their own choice,” Lee says. “I myself will not eat crudo unless I know the chef personally.”
Most of the proposed changes won’t be immediately evident to consumers, but diners with a view of the kitchen may notice more cooks wearing gloves if the rules are adopted. The code doesn’t mandate gloves, but prohibits “bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.”
“My hands aren’t clean,” Lee says. “How ’bout yours? How ’bout the guys on the corner? How ’bout the guy who just got off a boat with a green card? I don’t want people with questionable hygiene practices touching my food.”
In order to properly implement the code, Lee says chefs will ultimately have to act more like administrators: “They’ll have to be managers and not just hotshot cooks.” But he’s worried they won’t have the support they require from DHEC, which is suffering from a food inspector shortage. As the Post & Courier recently reported, inspectors in the tri-county area are each responsible for 227 to 327 facilities, making it nearly impossible to comply with federal guidelines recommending quarterly inspections.
The revised code, Lee says, “is not going to help if there aren’t enough inspectors out there. They’re completely overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.”
Beasley says the department does not anticipate requiring more staffing or resources to enforce the code if it becomes law.
No matter what happens, Lee’s advice for restaurant workers remains the same:
“Wash your hands,” he begs. “Would you please wash your hands?”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.