KAHULUI - The average permit fee Hawaii food establishments pay every year is likely to quadruple if a new food safety code is adopted, but a number of Maui restaurateurs say the public's safety is worth the price.
As part of the proposed rule changes, permit fees would jump from the current average of $46 per year to $200 per year in order to pay for a new food safety inspection system, state Department of Health officials said.
"I'm all for raising fees to man this system because public safety is important. That's something we at Mama's (Fish House) feel is true so that we hold ourselves to the strictest standards," said Scott Burns, the restaurant's chief engineer.
Examples of proposed food safety placards are shown. The state Department of Health held a public hearing Thursday on Maui for testimony on its proposed rule changes to alert customers to any unresolved safety violations at food establishments. A green card signifies no violations. A yellow card means two or more violations, although work is ongoing to make corrections. Red placards report establishments that refuse to correct violations or have severe, unsafe violations. These businesses would be ordered closed until problems are fixed.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
Burns was one of only four residents to testify at a public hearing hosted by the state Department of Health Sanitation Branch on Thursday at the University of Hawaii Maui College. More than 20 restaurant owners, food vendors, small farmers and patrons attended the meeting, which lasted about 30 minutes.
The revenue from increasing the permit fees will go toward implementing a new food safety inspection plan that aligns the state's standards on employee hygiene, food and cooking temperatures, and equipment contamination with regulations set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
A new public advisory system would post placards in windows for customers to easily see how an eatery scored on its last inspection, and if it has any pending violations.
A green card would signify no violations. A yellow card would mean two or more violations, although management could correct the violations and request another inspection the following working day to restore the restaurant's "green" placard status.
Establishments that refuse to correct the violations or have severe, unsafe violations would be given a red placard. They would be ordered to close until the problems are fixed.
Permanent vendors pay from $25 to $150 every two years under the current system. Under the new system, fees would range from $50 to $600 annually.
Hotel kitchens that are considered "high-risk" - or those that cook and serve raw meats - will pay the most in permit fees, $600. They currently pay $75 per year.
Fees for restaurants less than 1,000 square feet and for food trucks will range from $100 to $300, with fees for larger restaurants ranging from $200 to $400.
While this may seem like a dramatic shift for some vendors, department officials cited that the average permit fee on the Mainland ranges from $1,000 to $1,300 per year.
"A vehicle registration costs $200. This is a restaurant permit, and for $200 it's a good deal," Sanitation Branch chief Peter Oshiro said after the meeting.
Oshiro said that the visibility of the new placard system encourages "voluntary compliance" from businesses that may ease the burden on food inspectors.
"If we (inspectors) go to a restaurant now, let's say there's five major violations. We follow up, they don't correct it. Go back again, they don't correct it. We threaten to pull their permit, then they correct it," Oshiro said. "What this placard system does is with one follow-up inspection, everything will be corrected because the restaurant doesn't want that sticking in their wall. Instead of us chasing the restaurant, they call us."
Some business operators were concerned that the department would not have the manpower to follow up in a timely manner. Maui County has only three inspectors for its 1,772 food establishments, officials have said.
"I'm for whatever they can do to make it safe for the public, but you got to be fair," said Aric Nakashima, one of the owners of Pukalani Superette.
Patti Kitkowski, program chief of the Maui District Health Office, said that the office has received applications for one of the two vacant positions and hopes to hire a food safety inspector by January. Another supervisor position remains vacant.
The state Legislature has appropriated funds for an additional three Maui positions to be filled over the next three years, although the funds have not yet been released, Kitkow-ski said.
Even with limited staff, she said, she's confident the Maui inspectors will be able to visit all food establishments in the county to explain the new rule changes and placard system either before or shortly after they go into effect.
"Most of the bigger businesses are in favor of increased fees and stronger regulations because we're doing the national food code so everyone is on the same, stricter guidelines," Kitkowski said. "We started warning the restaurants that it's going to get stricter as soon as they started planning this two years ago, so it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody."
The last substantial change to the current rules was made in 1996, department officials said.
"This is the norm on the Mainland. We are so behind," Oshiro said.
The state is modeling the program after the award-winning food safety program that has proved successful in Sacramento, Calif., Oshiro said.
The department has been preparing restaurants for the oncoming changes for more than two years, Oshiro said, so it was not a surprise when only four people chose to testify at the meeting Thursday. Similar meetings held this week on the Big Island and Oahu were relatively short and not controversial, Oshiro said.
After the last public hearing held on Kauai today, the department will gather all testimony and submit it by Dec. 13 to Gov. Neil Abercrombie. He will decide whether to give final approval to the new rules.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.