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New Training Confronts Public Food Concerns
By Jamie Vickers
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Restaurants and other establishments that sell food to the public are turning to two state agencies to meet new requirements for food safety certification.
"Everyone expects their food to be safe, and more people are eating away from home," said Lydia Strayer, director of the sanitation bureau for the Mississippi State Health Department. "People who prepare the food have to be properly trained, or it could lead to illness."
It is estimated that there are about 81 million cases of food borne illness in the United States each year. The Mississippi State University Extension Service and Mississippi State Department of Health have joined to create safe food service.
Mississippi implemented a law in 1997 requiring each food service establishment in the state to have one person certified in food safety by January 1999. The National Restaurant Association's ServSafe Program is one of the recognized certifications.
"When we added the certification requirement, we didn't see any way the Mississippi Health Department could provide training for all of the food service managers," Strayer said. "We couldn't have done it without the Extension Service and the home economists."
With the need to certify about 14,000 food service managers, Strayer said the state Health Department is grateful the Extension Service is willing to help with certification.
"Extension home economists who have met the requirements of the National Restaurant Association are teaching the ServSafe programs locally," said Dr. Melissa Mixon, human nutrition specialist with MSU's Extension Service. "We try to provide the opportunity for the training as painless as possible. Whenever possible, we are scheduling training so that managers don't have to leave their establishments during peak business hours."
To obtain certification from the ServSafe Program, participants must complete 16 hours of training and pass a nationally standardized test.
Mixon said training is also available from some food distributors, community colleges and independent establishments, but the Extension Service offers a majority of the classes. She said training is usually offered in Birmingham, Jackson and Memphis, but the home economists offer the training across the state.
"Each county in Mississippi is covered by the training offered through Extension," Mixon said. "We are planning to teach about 75 more classes by Jan. 1."
Mixon said some facilities see the importance of the certification program and get two or more people certified per establishment.
"Because the permit belongs to the person and not the establishment, and because it is only good for five years, there will always be a need for the training Extension home economists offer," Mixon said.
"Some food service employees are not aware of how risky their job is," Mixon said. "One mistake has the potential to make hundreds sick, and about 85 percent of food borne illness cases could be avoided if people just handled food properly."