|The National Restaurant Association is one of a handful of private entities administering testing.|
City Occupational and Environmental Health Director Rajiv Bhatia told SFoodie that the City Attorney's investigation of DPH food inspectors who were involved with food safety certification fraud started as an anonymous tip to his office. This morning, City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced that his office was notifying 345 S.F. restaurants that their managers' safety certifications would no longer be valid, thanks to fraud in the administration of food safety exams.
The City Attorney's office found that, in some cases, the inspectors gave students answers during the exam, or even issued safety certifications to students who never even took the exam. Two of the three city inspectors under investigation in the scandal have been fired; a third is still under review.
Restaurant and other food service managers are required by law to have a valid safety certification, indicating that they're aware of proper food handling and storage procedures. The Department of Public Health offers the daylong safety classes, as do several private companies, including the National Restaurant Association.
Bhatia said a DPH employee received a phone tip last December that there were irregularities with one inspector. He said he requested an independent investigation from the City Attorney's office, an investigation that ended in spring 2009. "We learned that the situation was very extensive, that it was more widespread and that there were a larger number of employees and restaurants involved," Bhatia said.
In May, DPH fired the inspector named in the original tip. A second inspector was fired this summer, while a third is still the subject of review.
Bhatia stressed that the fraud occurred while the inspectors in question were working for private testing companies, not under the Department, essentially moonlighting. "One thing I want to be clear," Bhatia said. "While these individuals were working under the Department, they were not acting in their inspector capacity. These employees were conducting this testing and certification for profit, as many people do." Inspectors who moonlight for private certification companies are required to inform the Department about their activities. Bhatia said the individuals in question failed to do that.
Bhatia would not say whether or not he believed the inspectors in question received bribes from individuals and perhaps the restaurants they worked for to ensure they'd pass.
Bhatia said his department would be offering make-up tests so individuals with questionable certifications can get re-certified. The City Attorney's office announced the individuals and restaurants it had contacted would have 60 days to get new certifications.
For his part, Bhatia said the scandal pointed to the need for greater oversight with the certification process. "The California law that relies on private companies to provide certification is potentially jeopardizing public health." He cited the need for better accountability procedures to avoid future scandals.