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Chicago to let some ‘low-risk’ food sellers certify themselves

Chicago Department Public Health Commissioner BecharChoucair  | Sun-Times files

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair | Sun-Times files

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Updated: February 19, 2012 8:19AM

Chicago retailers that sell pre-packaged foods and recently inspected restaurants with no history of foodborne illness would police themselves and send inspection reports to City Hall, under a “self-certification” plan advanced Tuesday to free inspectors to focus on “high-risk” establishments.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan, approved by the City Council’s Committee on Budget and Government Operations, would apply to roughly 2,500 of the city’s 15,000 licensed food establishments.

The group would include grocery stores, gas stations and other “low-risk” stores that primarily sell beverages and pre-packaged foods and engage in minimal handling or preparation of food.

Self-certification would also be open to restaurants that have passed inspections in the prior year, have not been closed for food safety issues for 36 months and “not implicated as a source of food borne outbreak” in the past three years.

“If you are a food establishment that has a stellar record, has been doing a great job and has not failed inspections, there’s no reason we can’t work with you to ensure that you are continuing to do that work on your own,” Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair said Tuesday.

Choucair noted that the city code currently requires the Department of Public Health to inspect food establishments “at least once every six months, regardless of risk” and mobile food dispenser vehicles that serve ice cream, frozen desserts and milk once every 90 days months during the season.

That’s a tall order, considering the fact that department has just 32 field inspectors.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ordinance would relieve that burden.

“It allows low-risk food establishments to take a more active role in the health safety of their own establishments and allows city resources to be allocated toward food establishments with a greater risk of causing food borne illness. Both of these will help ensure the health safety of Chicagoans,” the commissioner said.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, welcomed the regulatory relief for restaurant owners with clean records.

“I applaud where we’re going. I believe that [for] responsible food establishments, self-certification is really the wave” of the future, he said.

Tunney said he’s comfortable giving the Department of Public Health broad new powers until the pilot expires in November 2014.

But, he said, “I want to see an assessment of where we’ve gone before we start giving the department more authority and not the aldermen, via the ordinance process. We have to make sure this Council is accountable to its constituents.”

Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) wondered aloud what is motivating the Health Department to “take a risk” by letting restaurants police themselves.

“You have to be careful with this…. To make it a lot easier [to do business in Chicago] — I totally agree with you. But, we have a responsibility to the people in general….What you’re doing in some peoples’ minds is shifting responsibility,” he said.

Choucair replied, “We wanted to make sure we continue to maintain and enhance public safety. And the second piece is to make it easier…to do business in Chicago.”

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