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September 16, 2013

State food safety laws raise concerns

INDIANAPOLIS – State health officials are looking for ways to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses at events sponsored by churches, youth organizations and other nonprofits without inadvertently regulating them out of existence.

Legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year is requiring the Indiana State Department of Health to review the state’s confusing and conflicting food-safety laws that cover some nonprofit organizations but not others.

At a hearing on the issue Monday, a state health official said there needs to be increased awareness among both regulated and unregulated entities of basic food-safety rules to reduce food-contamination outbreaks that lead to illness, hospitalizations and deaths.

“We think it’s important that there ought to be somebody in charge, that could promote food safety in the organization, to provide some kind of oversight,” said Anthony Gilliam, a state health department official.

Both state and federal officials have been working over the past decade to reduce the easily transmitted food-borne illnesses linked to unsafe food practices. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011, there were more than 5 million people hospitalized, and 149 deaths, due to the norovirus. Another 19,336 were hospitalized due to salmonella poisoning, which claimed 378 lives.

Indiana currently has a law that requires all restaurants and other “food establishments” to have a certified food handler on staff to oversee food safety matters and to act as an educator for employees about safe food handling practices.

But there’s some confusion about what constitutes a “food establishment” when it’s run by a nonprofit organization. For example, a church has a limited number of days every year during which it can serve food to the public before it becomes a “food establishment.”

One of the concerns that emerged during Monday’s hearing in front of the Senate Health Finance Commission was the unintentional risk being posed by volunteers who work food-related events held by churches and other nonprofits that are exempt from the state’s food-safety regulations.

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