Food establishments in Santa Cruz County could be faced with a stricter and more costly county health and sanitary code beginning in January.
During a series of meetings held last month in Nogales, Rio Rico, Sonoita and Tubac, county officials presented the proposed changes to restauranteurs, after which attendees were allowed to express comments and concerns about the proposed guidelines.
“From 1976 all the way through, the code itself really hasn’t made major changes,” Jeff Terrell, the county’s health services director, told the NI last week. “Basically, what we’re looking to adopt is in reference to the 2017 (Food and Drug Administration) Food Code.”
One of the major changes under the new guidelines, he said, is an increase in fees starting in 2020 and continuing in 2023 and 2026. The current fee schedule was adopted in 2004, Terrell said.
Another guideline the county is considering is requiring a certified food manager to be on site at all times, as opposed to the current code, which only requires the person in charge at any given time to be “knowledgeable,” without the need to be certified.
Jesus “Chuy” Ochoa, owner of Chuyito’s Hot Dogs in Nogales who attended one of the public meetings, said he accepts the new, “very strict” guidelines, but is worried about how county officials and inspectors will go about implementing the new code.
“One thing that they’re trying to do that I think is a bit ridiculous is that there has to be a certified food manager,” Ochoa said, adding that he believes the training that all owners and employees already go through is enough. “But if they’re going to be fair with everyone, then there’s no problem with me.”
He expressed frustration with the small number of attendees present at the public meeting in Nogales, and worried that the lack of unity among local restauranteurs might present problems when the county begins implementing the new code.
“Later they’re going to say that they didn’t know since they didn’t attend the meeting and they’re not going to get fined. But they’re going to be strict with us who did attend,” Ochoa said.
But Terrell said the county always delivers an education program before officially implementing fines under new codes.
“We will work with them and we have been working with them now. Basically in each inspection, my inspectors are letting them know and they’re working with them under what the new code will be if it’s adopted. So they’re already in the process of learning it now,” Terrell said.
Wineries as eateries
The proposal to update the health code has rekindled the debate over whether wineries should be considered food establishments and regulated like restaurants – a question of contention between the county and local vintners for several years.
Kent Callaghan, owner of Callaghan Vineyards in Elgin, insisted that calling wineries “food establishments,” which has been an on-and-off topic during his 30 years in business, constitutes a misclassification.
“They would come in and try to apply restaurant criteria to a winery, which is just absurd. We don’t sell anything that is perishable, that is a health hazard, so it’s kind of remarkably misapplied,” he said.
He added that following restaurant criteria would require the wineries to abide by food-grade services, obtain food handling certificates for all employees and upgrade to commercial equipment, among several other changes.
“I can tell you that about 13 of the 15 (wineries) are probably in similar thought with me. They’re not thrilled about this at all,” he said.
Terrell said that, in fact, wineries have been considered food establishments for several years already, under the state health code adopted in 1999.
“There’s also the simple fact that they are serving or sampling or pouring, even if it’s just pouring the sample,” Terrell said. “Drink, by definition of the FDA, including alcohol, is considered food.”
He added that only one winery in the county has a currently active eatery license, and was the only one formally notified of the public meetings to discuss the new health code.
As for the others who weren’t notified, he said, the county also put public notices in the newspaper, as required by state law.
“We’ve been working on this for several years,” Terrell said about trying to enforce the code with the wineries. “We’ve been in the process of talking to the wineries out there, trying to get them under compliance.”
Callaghan said that most vintners in the area are still displeased with the county’s posture toward their businesses and added that a few owners, including himself, planned to submit their complaints to the county.
As for Ochoa, the restaurant and food truck owner in Nogales, he said he has already expressed all his concerns to county officials during the public meeting in Nogales.
“In reality, the meeting had no validity because not enough people went. It wasn’t a requirement for people to go,” he said. “If more people had gone, then we would’ve been able to protest against certain things, but no one says anything.”
Terrell said the county expects to receive all feedback from stakeholders by Sept. 15, but will also consider any comments and concerns expressed after the given deadline.
He added that the new health/sanitary code can be expected to go before the County Board of Supervisors for approval in late November or early December.