Regulatory confusion swipes frozen pizzas off local pub counters

Regulatory confusion swipes frozen pizzas off local pub counters

Revisions to state food safety regulations have forced some local pubs to ditch their toaster ovens.

Regulatory overreach or a simple misunderstanding? That’s what some bar owners are trying to figure out after a recent change in state food safety regulations stopped them from selling frozen pizzas.

Earlier this year, the Peoria City/County Health Department, or PCCHD, sent out notices to some local taverns informing them of changes to state food-handling training requirements, according to the Peoria Journal Star. These updated rules, according to PCCHD, now required smaller establishments with minimal food handling operations to pay for more costly employee food training.

This policy change has for months kept many small taverns and clubs from serving frozen pizzas for patrons, to the frustration of customers and business owners. But Carey Panier, PCCHD’s director of environmental health, confirmed the county has received clarification from the state and is working internally on a solution.

No more pizzas

The policy change affected non-restaurants, such as pubs and veterans clubs, that offer toaster-oven pizzas as a snack for bar patrons. For VFW Post No. 2602, the new food-safety training requirements meant a cost of $185 per employee, not including eight hours’ worth of wages for those employees. The new rules would also require the veterans club to keep a designated “Person in Charge” on staff to “supervise the frozen pizzas” each shift, according to the Journal Star.

At least one pub said it isn’t worth it.

“How many $7 pizza would we have to sell to cover that cost?” Mary Bland, a barkeep at the Peoria Heights VFW, told the Journal Star. The VFW and other Peoria-area establishments have had to get rid of their pizza ovens because they cannot afford to comply with the new requirements.

It wasn’t just small taverns and clubs suffering from the change: Tim Carey, owner of Butch’s Pizza, a supplier of frozen pizzas and toaster ovens to many of the affected businesses, told the Journal Star he is “losing accounts left and right.”

According to state law, food-serving establishments adhere to different training mandates that vary based on the classification of public health risk. Traditional restaurants, for example, face the strictest food handling requirements, due to their relatively high risk of food-borne illness.

State law classifies smaller, non-restaurant establishments such as the VFW as posing the lowest health risk, and therefore applies the least stringent food handling requirements on them. That changed with the notice sent out by PCCHD, which informed them that the state heightened their health risk classification.

Kitchen confusion

The issue hasn’t been isolated to Peoria County. Sangamon County also notified smaller establishments about the change in state food safety requirements, the Journal Star reported. According to Panier, other county health departments that have moved to similarly comply with the change in state regulation includes DeWitt-Piatt, McLean, LaSalle, Adams and Champaign counties, among others.

But it’s uncertain whether the change in food-handling training requirements is an example of overreach from Springfield or a misunderstanding on the part of the county. Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold told the Journal Star that the agency had not changed any food training requirements that affect county health departments.

The state contended that local health departments have flexibility in choosing which of the three food handling categories best fit local establishments.

This came as a surprise to Panier, who considered the state’s change in requirements unnecessary. Panier said previous correspondence with IDPH indicated the new rule change overrides county flexibility.

After months without movement on a solution, Panier confirmed that the county is finally working on a policy to permit establishments like the local VFW to once again serve frozen pizzas and similar snacks. The county aims to finalize their policy and begin reaching out to affected establishments in the next week or two, Panier said May 31.

Confusion caused by sweeping regulatory changes too often comes at the expense of small businesses and consumers. As county officials work closer to a solution, local pub owners anticipate recapturing a lost slice of their profits.

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