Monterey County, California, has a population of 437,907. Agriculture in Monterey County is a $8 billion-dollar industry, and the surrounding Salinas Valley is known as the Salad Bowl of the World.” Overall, 55% of the population is Hispanic/Latino, 33% are White (not Hispanic), 6% are Asian, 3% are Black/African American, and the remaining 3% are Other with 53% of the population not speaking English at home. Monterey County has a 17% poverty rate, 1 in 3 residents are on Medi-Cal, and 1 in 10 of the county's public school children are homeless. Monterey County Health Department (MCHD) tackles diverse health issues reflective of its diverse population.
MCHD's Gold Seal Inspection Program was designed in collaboration with the Food Safety Advisory Council of Monterey County (FSAC). The Gold Seal Inspection program was developed as an alternative to a food facility grading system. The California Uniform Retail Food Law (CURFL) now the California Retail Food Code (Cal-Code) allowed local for a food facility a grading or evaluation system. FSAC and county staff collaborated with development of a Gold Seal program as an evaluation system/incentive program rather than a grading system denoting food violation scoring criteria. Food culture awareness also brought a desire to have more information regarding the health and safety of food facilities and information on any existing major and minor violations. The goal of the Gold Seal program is to encourage substantial compliance with Cal-Code and for facilities to utilize active managerial control, by food preparation and serving establishments. The program helps consumers identify facilities that meet or exceed the food safety requirements of Cal-Code on a consistent basis. All operating food facilities are considered to meet food safety requirements if they are in operation. Those food facilities with substantial compliance over time are awarded the Gold Seal.
Participation in the Gold Seal Program is voluntary. Health-permitted retail establishments that have a food preparation area, such as a commercial level kitchen, restaurant, or deli, are given the opportunity to participate. Environmental Health promotes the program in the field, online and during the permitting process. Issuance of a Gold Seal requires a history of substantial compliance. A file review is conducted and if the facility is new, two routine unannounced inspections within a 12-month period to establish a history of compliance. Not all volunteer participants start in the program with a Gold Seal. A Gold Seal cannot be issued if there are significant, major violations observed during routine inspections. If a Gold Seal is removed after major violations are observed, the Gold Seal can be earned back after re-establishing a history of compliance through at least two unannounced routine inspections. The Gold Seal must be earned as there is no entitlement as in the assignment of a grade.
The Gold Seal can be displayed by the facility owner and serves as a tool for the public to be aware of and educated about food safety and food-borne illnesses. Other rating programs were evaluated and found to discourage positive actions and clouded educational opportunities for food facility operators. There is misinterpretations and confusion the meaning of a rating, grade. or color code. Further, the issuance of grades based on scoring may be influenced or contested by food operators and the inspection staff may be pressured to provide higher scores resulting in higher grades.
As an alternative to prior practices, the Gold Seal program was developed by staff and implemented in June 2005. The criteria for a Gold Seal award was the facility meeting and sustaining substantial compliance with the California Retail Food Code following a complete unannounced inspection conducted by a Registered Environmental Health Specialist (REHS). Specific criteria in the inspection report must be met to qualify for a Seal. Following a complete inspection, if a food facility has been determined to be in Substantial Compliance” with the California Health and Safety Code, the Environmental Health Specialist will print the name of the facility, inspector's name, and date on the Gold Seal and issue it to the food facility. Substantial compliance includes:
- Demonstration of food safety knowledge
- Employee Health and Hygiene Practices
- Time and Temperature Relationships
- Holding temperatures within legal requirements
- Cooking temperatures meeting regulatory requirements
- Protection from contamination
- Food from approved sources and conformance with approved procedures
- Highly susceptible population such as schools and skilled nursing facilities
- Potable water/hot water required
- Liquid Waste Disposal system/Storm Water Compliance
- No more than 5 non-critical/minor violations or other health and safety issues at the discretion of the Department
- Supervision, Personal Cleanliness, General Food Safety Requirements
- Food Storage/Display/Service, Equipment/Utensils/Linens
- Physical Facilities: plumbing, garbage, toilet facilities
- Permanent Food Facilities: floors, walls, and ceilings
- Signs Requirements/Compliance and Enforcement
Lastly, there shall be no critical major violations as listed on the inspection report form.
The program is voluntary for food facilities. The simplicity and iconic appearance of the seal gives quick assurance to the public that health and safety standards have been met; the list of compliance items is easy for facility staff to understand.
The program has largely been successful because the Gold Seal stands out on the wall of a facility, the standards are met are easy to understand, facility managers and owners learn how to improve their food safety and handling, and the program is easy to communicate to the media and the public. This program has had significant public health impact as evidenced by the improvement in facilities meeting the criteria, indicating substantial compliance with food safety standards is occurring in Monterey County which should result in less food borne illness outbreaks associated with food facility-related exposures.
Website for the program is: http://www.co.monterey.ca.us/government/departments-a-h/health/environmental-health/consumer-health-protection/food/gold-seal-program