Restaurant employees in Tempe are not equipped to serve food without a food handler’s card, and the measures taken by the city are not increasing the number of employees who have obtained them.

These cards are required for all those who are responsible for handling, preparing, serving or selling food suitable for human consumption, according to the Maricopa County Environmental Services Department. These jobs also include the duties of those busing or washing dishes as well.

A food handler’s card requires the worker to test their food preparation knowledge and provides the health inspector with information as to whether or not the staff is aware of how to serve food safely. The cards can be obtained through taking a standardized exam testing the most important food safety laws.

But how secure can consumers be that the workers serving their food are certified to do so?

“You don’t know what happens back there in the kitchen,” says Sylvia Heath, Scottsdale resident and mother. “If employees aren’t following the mandated food safety rules, the customer would never know.”

Measures have been taken by the Environment Services Department to increase the number of test takers and employees with a food handler’s card, yet the city of Tempe has fallen short.

A new interactive online exam was created in September 2010 to make it easier for those with limited time, unable to take the test at a designated testing location.

Although the new system does allow more convenience, the department has seen no change in the amount of test takers since the online program began, according to the program’s supervisor Tracy Watson.

“People who would normally come into our office are taking it online, but as for the amount of people overall getting food handler’s cards, that has not changed,” Watson says.

The exam tests all the essential information any employee working in the food service industry should understand before beginning the process of serving food. Topics include the causes of food contamination and how to prevent it, appropriate employee uniform and proper food handling techniques.

“I felt no real pressure to get the license,” says Justin Poore, an employee of Duck and Decanter. “I knew the process was easy, but I wasn’t cooking the food; I was just preparing the sandwiches.”

Food safety rules are important to understand in the workplace because of the rapidly increasing cases of food-borne illnesses present in restaurants today, Watson says.

There are 48 million cases of food-borne illnesses in the United States reported each year — roughly 1 out of 6 Americans — resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to a recent report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although not understanding food safety poses a huge risk for customers, 
Maricopa County food inspectors only distribute marginal offenses to businesses for the lack of certified employees.

“They encourage them to get cards, but with Maricopa County and the way things are set up, it’s only marked with a minor violation if 50 percent or more of the employees do not have cards, ” Watson says.

For more information about food handler’s cards or obtaining a food handler’s card, visit the Maricopa County Environmental Service’s website or call Tracy Watson at (602) 506-6929.