kitchen

Head chef Alexi Guzman tosses a pan full of peppers and onions at Aspen Tap on Thursday afternoon. The state public health department is implementing new regulations for restaurants and other food-service operations and will hold an informational meeting Tuesday at the Aspen Police Department.

The state public health department’s takeover of Pitkin County’s restaurant and food-service inspection program becomes active next week with the arrival of a team from Denver that will conduct site visits and hold informational meetings on new regulations.

An email from a Colorado health official sent to restaurants and other entities licensed to prepare and serve food in the county says the state will now handle inspections in Pitkin County — but not in Aspen, where city government has its own program — and that a new food code went into effect throughout the state, including Aspen, as of the new year.

“During the week of Jan. 7-11 several members of the retail food-inspection team from [the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] will be in Pitkin County conducting inspections and holding meetings,” the email says. “A member of our team will be available to answer questions about the changes to the new food code and inspection program.”

Meetings will be held at the Aspen Police Department on Tuesday, from 8 a.m. to noon and also from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. A meeting also is planned for Wednesday at the Basalt Regional Library from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Troy Huffman, retail food team coordinator for the state health department, is expected to oversee the outreach effort.

State officials say Pitkin County’s two-decade-old program did not meet standards of a performance-improvement plan, or PIP, that was initiated in July. Local governments have annual contracts with the state to handle the inspections. In this case, the state chose not to renew its contract for the county’s environmental health department to continue the service.

The county was responsible for inspections and educational outreach for 97 local restaurants and other food-service operations, according to the state, which plans to handle those duties at least through the remainder of 2019.

On Friday, County Manager Jon Peacock sent an email to the Aspen Daily News to reiterate that county inspectors met the criteria as outlined in the plan. Peacock and environmental health manager Kurt Dahl said they are baffled by the decision not to renew the contract because communications from state officials suggested the county’s program was on the right track.

The county completed all the requested trainings, inspections and monthly reports, and “did everything that was listed in the PIP by the state to bring us back into compliance,” an email from a county inspector who works under Dahl states.

“We very clearly did meet the PIP, and the state provided letters indicating we did,” Peacock’s email says. “Based on the PIP I view the state’s action and assertion that the PIP was not met as arbitrary and unexpected.”

His statement says that the inspection program was heavily subsidized by county government. Through its contract, the state provided annual funding — around $41,000 in 2018 — to help cover costs associated with the program.

“Our concern is ensuring that a proper level of service is provided to ensure protection of public health,” Peacock’s email adds. “If the state can do this well without us having to subsidize the program, perhaps we’re better off as a community. We will monitor how the state is providing the services and have further dialogue as necessary to ensure public health and safety is prioritized.”

When asked on Thursday whether the county failed to meet the standards of the performance plan, Jeff Lawrence, director of the state division of environmental health and sustainability, replied, “That would be accurate.” He went on to say that his department determined that the county didn’t have enough manpower to adequately handle its caseload. Dahl said another concern cited by the state was the county’s “level of engagement” with state public health officials.

“It’s tough when you have more work than the bodies provided can perform,” Lawrence said.

He said he expects to hold discussions later this year about the possibility of returning the inspection program and its educational component back to local control. Dahl said his department plans to keep an eye on how well the state performs this year.

New food-service rules

On Nov. 15, the Colorado Board of Health voted to adopt a new food code for the state. The rules apply to “all retail food establishments” in the state.

Colorado officials said the new code more fully conforms with the federal Food and Drug Administration’s code, and that the state public health department has been working with local government inspectors over the last year “to provide guidance and training to ensure a smooth transition to the new regulations.”

Among the rules:

  • At least one person affiliated with a restaurant or food-service operation must demonstrate that they are able to actively manage the food-safety risks by becoming a “certified food protection manager.” Some exceptions may apply. Dahl said the food-protection manager will be required to participate in training courses.
  • Certain foods that require time and temperature control for safety reasons, kept for more than 24 hours, must be date-marked.
  • Managers must establish procedures for employees to follow when cleaning up vomit or feces. “The procedures must address specific actions employees must take to minimize the spread of contamination and the exposure of employees, consumers, food and surfaces to vomit and fecal matter,” the state public health department wrote in its online summary of the most impactful rules.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.

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