Home-kitchen businesses still a no-go in Yolo County

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It does not appear Yolo County will be authorizing home-cooked, home-based restaurant operations any time soon.

The Board of Supervisors indicated Tuesday that until state law is changed to allow for greater oversight by health inspectors, “micro-enterprise home kitchen operations” will remain illegal in the county.

State law that took effect in January allows counties to authorize permits for such businesses, where residents of private homes prepare home-cooked meals for sale to the public. The law limits the businesses to one full-time employee and no more than $50,000 in gross annual sales.

According to April Meneghetti, the county’s director of environmental health, only one county in California — Riverside — has authorized such permits.

In a presentation to the board on Tuesday, Meneghetti recommended that Yolo County not follow suit, citing a lack of protections against food-borne illnesses, including the most common sources: improper holding temperatures, inadequate cooking, poor personal hygiene, contaminated equipment and food from unsafe sources.

Under AB 626, counties may authorize permits for such businesses but may not enact stricter health standards for them than what is required under AB 626 itself.

That means while other food preparation businesses and restaurants in Yolo County receive at minimum two unannounced routine inspections per year, said Meneghetti, MEHKOs, as they’re called, would be limited to only one inspection per year and only by appointment.

“These facilities will be engaged in handling potentially hazardous foods which can lead to food-borne illness,” Meneghetti’s staff report for Tuesday’s meeting noted. “Unannounced inspections allow inspectors to observe food facility operations as they would typically operate and discover situations that might lead to food-borne illness. When unsafe practices are found during an unannounced inspection, it offers an opportunity to educate food handlers.”

Additionally, the home-based businesses would be exempt from the county’s “Green Yellow Red” food safety placarding program which “helps consumers make informed decisions when food safety compliance is a concern to them and it motivates food facilities to stay in compliance,” according to Meneghetti.

AB 626 also provides several exemptions from the California Retail Food Code that could contribute to an increase in food-borne illness, critics have said. Key among them, according to Meneghetti: The law does not require handwashing supplies in the kitchen.

“They’re not required to have soap, paper towels, anything like that at the kitchen sink,” she said.

The law also lacks requirements for proper utensil washing, which along with hand washing, are two of the top five main contributors to food-borne illness outbreaks, Meneghetti’s report said.

“All of these things lead us to have great concern that we’d have an increase in food-borne illnesses,” Meneghetti told supervisors Tuesday.

Concerns about AB 626 prompted clean-up legislation in the form of AB 377 — which is currently awaiting the governor’s signature. The latter bill is intended to address some of the concerns that have been raised by the environmental health community. However, Meneghetti said, the bill does not address the primary concerns of the Yolo County’s environmental health staff and the Yolo County health officer.

That’s not to say micro-enterprise home kitchen operations aren’t desired by many in Yolo County — such businesses were endorsed in the Davis Food and Economic Development plan released last year.

The report lists among its action items “funding the resources needed for Yolo County health inspectors to support home-cook, home restaurant businesses in the city of Davis, recently legalized via (AB 626).”

The FED report also calls for Davis to be “the first city to embrace home cooks, giving more people the opportunity to participate in the food economy and creating a vibrant food culture via a bottom-up approach.”

But on Tuesday supervisors noted that the state law itself will have to be changed to move forward.

Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis said the board received numerous emails on the topic prior to Tuesday’s meeting but noted that none of those folks showed up at the meeting.

“My suggestion to those emailing us is go back and do a reasonable piece of legislation and we’ll look into it at that time,” he said.

“I’m not surprised that only one county has adopted it,” Provenza added.

Meanwhile, Meneghetti told supervisors that complaints have been received locally over food-borne illnesses related to home-based food preparation businesses, including two that were referred to the District Attorney’s Office.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy.

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