Cranford plans stiffer penalties for health code violations

CRANFORD — Last week Township Health Officer Megan Avallone strongly suggested it was time to ensure all township restaurants maintain the safest standards by putting in place an ordinance that would fine those failing to comply in a timely manner.

Those who have had food poisoning, norovirus or salmonella would agree it is not something they want to pick up again, especially when dining out. Unfortunately, according to state officials, while it is hard to pinpoint where someone picked up the bacteria that causes these illnesses, it is not impossible.

That is why Avallone said in an interview with LocalSource that she is making sure such an outbreak does not happen on her watch again. Avallone is the health director for the Westfield Regional Health Department, which the township contracted with last year for $57,635 annually to provide state-mandated health services.

Part of ensuring the safety of residents starts with local restaurant owners adhering to state laws specifically in place to protect the health and welfare of the general public.
While many eating-establishment owners and their employees say state laws governing them are too restrictive, Avallone begs to differ, and said she is well aware of what can happen due to something as simple when employees do not wash their hands prior to handling or preparing food.

“We had an establishment in one of the towns we contract with that engaged in improper hand washing and the result was 30 members of the public contracted the norovirus,” said the health officer.

The extremely contagious norovirus comes on suddenly and can leave a victim dehydrated and very ill. Although tracking down the source of a food-borne illness is difficult, health officers, along with help from the state health department, manage to do just that. Teaching proactive, safe food handling practices, which includes hand washing and keeping food at the right temperature, is critical to keeping diners healthy.

Last week at the quarterly meeting of the Cranford Board of Health, Avallone brought up the subject of instituting an ordinance that would fine food establishments that do not pass inspection multiple times. The objective, Avallone said, is not to punish these business owners, but rather bring them into compliance.

“Food establishments that continue to receive a ‘conditional satisfactory’ rating over and over because they have one or more state sanitary-code violations need to be moved toward compliance and fining encourages moving in this direction,” she explained.

At the meeting of board of health, which is comprised of the five township committee members, the township clerk and longtime resident and local physician Mike Beams, Avallone gave an example of one local restaurant that has failed to be in compliance since May.

While not singling out Calabria Pizza, but using it as an example, Avallone pointed out that she was uncomfortable with any restaurant that has not been able to get hand washing straight for four months. She did point out that, while other food establishments in the township certainly have had ‘conditional satisfactory’ ratings for one reason or another, “most of the restaurants in Cranford are wonderful” about following state sanitary regulations.

Avallone said Calabria specifically had issues that included the hand-washing sink being inaccessible, a lack of paper towels or soap in the restrooms, and food not being protected from contamination. All are issues that could result in food contamination and the passing on of an illness such as the norovirus, according to the health officer.

“There are state sanitary-code regulations that have to be taken seriously,” Avallone said late last week. “It’s not that something will happen, but that it could.” That alone, she added, is the reason for the state regulations food establishments must follow in order to get a satisfactory inspection by a local state-licensed inspector.

Cranford Board of Health members agreed, and suggested the township attorney draft an ordinance similar to the one Westfield adopted years ago.
Township Attorney Daniel McCarthy had a draft of the new ordinance ready for the governing body to review within 24 hours. However, according to Mayor Tom Hannen, McCarthy preferred to wait until the September meeting for the governing body to introduce the measure, to ensure the ordinance is reviewed and any additions or changes are made.

Closing down a food establishment, Avallone told board of health members, would take place if there were an immediate health concern, such as a sewage backup, no running water, a fire that destroys a large portion of the kitchen or no electricity.

The Westfield ordinance, part of a lengthy board of health general provisions ordinance, includes a fine of $100 if the food establishment fails to pass inspection after the second visit; a $200 fine, plus a $150 inspector charge, if it fails a third time; and a $400 fine, plus a $150 inspector charge, after the fourth failed inspection.

Avallone explained that, since there is only a part-time inspector in Cranford, the township pays an hourly rate for an inspector’s services when it’s necessary for an inspector to revisit a food establishment. She would not discuss the exact content of the Cranford draft ordinance, but did say it was similar to Westfield’s, “with some exceptions.”
Hannen said he felt the health of the community and those visiting local restaurants from surrounding towns had to be protected.
“I think this is a good move in the right direction,” the mayor added.