A line forms from the door as workers take names of people waiting to be seated. This isn’t the scene of a popular restaurant on a Friday night; it’s food handlers from all over the city waiting to take the health department’s course in food safety.
All food handlers in Columbia have to attend to work in a food industry. As about 70 people file into the seats after paying their $5, a petite woman walks in front of the class and introduces herself. Kala Gunier, environmental health specialist for the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, begins her lessons with hygiene.
“First thing that you do when you come into your establishment,” Gunier asks, waiting for a student to finish her sentence. Voices rise from around the room with the answer, “Wash your hands.”
This is about as hard as it gets in the class taught by the health department. A lecture and videos review with participants items such as proper hand-washing techniques, proper dishwashing techniques, proper chemical use for dishes and other areas, proper food temperatures when cooking or storing food and personal cleanliness and appearance.
Kim Ahrons, who used to work for a country club in St. Louis and currently works at Rack & Roll, said the course wasn’t much help.
“I think the stuff that we learn in here is stuff that people — at least I — knew,” Ahrons said. “It was common knowledge; it’s stuff everyone should know.”
While some students slouched in their seats with their heads on their fists, Gunier continued teaching the class with the frame of mind that this class is the city’s chance to keep things safe in Columbia.
“It gives the opportunity to tell the food service workers what our expectations are, and what is required,” Gunier said.
“We teach people how to do things the right way,” said Gerry Worley, supervisor of Columbia health inspectors.
For some attending the class, it was more or less a review session.
“I’ve worked in so many restaurants that I already knew all of it,” said Joshua Leech, who works at Steak ‘N Shake.
Knowing that many people feel they do not need the class, the health department employees say they know it is simple, but what they want to get across can go a long way toward preventing the spread of food-borne diseases.
After having an interactive discussion and watching two videos to elaborate on the material, students then must take a 20-question multiple-choice test covering the material.
The health department tweaks the test every few years to try to improve it.
As the tests are handed in, food handlers cards are handed out. Those who don’t do well on the test receive a card, but run the chance of having to retake the test after it is graded.
Mallorie Oswald, who works at Subway, questioned the wisdom of distributing cards before tests are graded.
“They really didn’t look at it. They just glanced at it. But they need to check those because some people might not know everything,” Oswald said.
Tests are graded by the food inspectors within a couple of days. Any person who does not do well on the test will be talked to and given a chance to take the test again on the next available date.
“Just because they have the card doesn’t mean they passed the test,” Gunier said.
She said people rarely fail the test because the design of the test is made so almost anybody can pass. But for those who never attend the class and never receive a card, the consequences can be put not only on them, but also their businesses.
“It is a violation, and we give them a certain amount of time to correct,” said Paul Dickinson, also an environmental health specialist for the city and county.
New employees can work up to 30 days without a food handlers card. If a food establishment is inspected after those 30 days, and an employee is working without a card, the business is cited on its inspection sheet with a violation and the employee is given a deadline, which may be up to 90 days later, to take the class.
“We do go back and check,” Gunier said, speaking of catching people working without a card.
For some, going through the class is worthwhile and didn’t prove to be a hard task to avoid trouble for their businesses.
“It’s just to get a card; it’s pretty simple,” Leech said.
The food handler’s course is given three times a month in the City Council Chambers of the Daniel Boone Building, 701 E. Broadway.
The food handlers card needs to be renewed after three years and is not transferable between food businesses.
For more information and a schedule of food handlers courses, call the Health Department at 874-7345.