Aug. 19, 2004 – The territory's regulations for food-service establishments are so outdated that they have "severely hampered your health inspectors in meeting their public-health responsibilities," a federal Food and Drug Administration official told a Senate committee Thursday.
That conclusion is based on "evaluations and observations from our food-safety field work in the Virgin Islands," Chester Morris, cooperative programs director for the FDA's Southeast Region, said at a Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee hearing on St. Thomas.
After listening to Morris and others urging the territory to adopt the current federal Food Code, the committee unanimously voted to approve legislation that would do just that.
The section of the V.I. Code now addressing food safety regulations is about 50 years old.
"The current Virgin Islands regulation does not adequately address any of the risk factors," Morris told the lawmakers. And it has "no requirement at all" for cooking temperatures of potentially hazardous foods.
Based on current scientific knowledge, he said, potentially hazardous foods should be cooled from 135 degrees Fahrenheit to 41 degrees F within six hours and then held at 41 degrees. However, the V.I. Code states that perishable foods should be kept at 50 degrees F.
Morris and others testifying encouraged the committee to approve a bill sponsored by the committee chair, Sen. Douglas Canton Jr., which would require the Health Department to adopt the 2001 Edition of the Food Code as published by the FDA.
The Food Code provides jurisdictions at all levels of government with scientifically sound technical and legal bases for regulating the retail food-service sector, Morris said. The code is intended to provide guidance and tools to prevent food-borne illness and to be a uniform standard for adoption by regulatory agencies throughout the United States.
The code addresses five major risk factors: poor personal hygiene, inadequate cooking temperatures, improper holding temperatures, contaminated equipment and food from unapproved sources.
"A previous FDA evaluation of the Virgin Islands Food Program found that 70 percent of the firms inspected for the evaluation had temperature violations related to potentially hazardous foods," Morris said. "The absence of provisions in the regulation to address the five risk factors places your food industry in jeopardy of performing unsafe practices that place both your residents and tourists at risk."
Rita Goytia, director of Puerto Rico's Health Department Food Hygiene Division, testified that the commonwealth moved to adopt the Food Code in 2000 due to the fact that "our food- service regulations were obsolete." They dated back to 1945, she said.
The process has been ongoing due to constant revisions to the Food Code, Goytia said, and it has come at a considerable financial cost. But she said the Health Department has been able to offset the cost by charging for inspections, licenses and sampling. It also established fines of $5,000 per violation and of as much as $10,000 for relapsing in a one-year period.
"I highly recommend the adoption of the Food Code, since I know it will serve to strengthen your food industry and it will make it safer for the consumers by reducing the threat of food-borne illnesses," Goytia said.
Clarice Canton-Comissiong, V.I. Health Department acting deputy commissioner, told the committee that it is in the "best interest and health" of the community that the Food Code be adopted.
Responding to senators' questions, Canton-Comissiong said the department has eight inspectors, four in each district, to conduct inspections at approximately 2,000 food-service establishments in the territory.
"Routinely each business is inspected about twice a year," Dwayne Maduro, one of those inspectors, testified.
Comissiong said more staff and more vehicles for inspectors are needed. "Staff has utilized government and personal vehicles to conduct inspections, even on personal time without compensation and with the implementation of a flextime schedule," she said.
According to Comissiong, adoption of the Food Code would mean increased costs to the department, for additional staff, and to the food retailers as well.
"We have to look at the quality of food being offered for consumption," Sen. Emmett Hansen II said.
With approval by the committee, the bill will go next to the Rules Committee for consideration.
Committee members present at the hearing were Sens. Lorraine Berry, Canton, Hansen, Luther Renee and Usie Richards. Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Norman Jn Baptiste were not present.
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