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Should you serve food from dented cans? How can you tell when cheese sauce or meat reaches the proper temperature? And just how long should you wash your hands before touching food?

The answers are: Never serve food from a dented can; only with a special food thermometer; and 70 seconds, or long enough to sing the first verse of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm."

The questions and answers are part of a new Niagara County Health Department class designed to address food service problems before they occur, said William Moore, a health department technician.

"We'd much rather spend our time educating, instead of on the phone talking with people who have become ill" from possible food poisoning, Moore told a group of about 45 food service workers attending a Niagara County Health Department food safety training course earlier this month. The class was held at the department's Mount View Campus on Upper Mountain Road.

The course has been offered since January to employees at some of the county's more than 1,200 eating establishments as their annual inspections become due. Others are offered a chance to attend as a way of reducing or avoiding fines for public health regulation violations. So far, about 250 food service workers, restaurant owners and managers have attended.

Slides, discussion and demonstrations were used to teach food safety at the department's October class. A food service safety manual describing proper storage, handling and cooking techniques was distributed to all who attended.

When giving the class, Moore and fellow technician Roberta Harper try to focus on the rationale behind health department regulations. "We let them know why we are looking for certain things, so hopefully it makes more sense to them when we come for an inspection," Ms. Harper said.

For example, Ms. Harper told attendees that they may never serve food from a dented can, even if no holes in the can are visible. However, immediately using the contents of a can that has just been dented may be safe.

But dangerous bacteria can quickly contaminate food if a dent opens a seal on the can, and the flaw might be too small to be seen, or hidden under a label, Ms. Harper said.

Dented cans are considered a "red" violation by health department inspectors, meaning it could cause a serious risk to public health. And restaurants where dented cans are found in the kitchen face a $250 fine.

Some foods prepared a certain way -- beef cooked rare or medium, and sunny-side-up and soft-boiled eggs -- are another potential source of contamination, Ms. Harper said.

The health department recommends all beef be cooked until it is completely brown and no pink juices run out. Eggs are properly cooked only when the yolk is completely hardened, Moore said.

"The customer has the right to request a hamburger rare, and you have the right to serve it," Ms. Harper said. "The customer then also has the right to turn around and sue you for serving it to them if they get sick. This is a sue-crazy world, so it's up to you," she said.

Susan Antonucci, dietary director for Heritage Manor's adult care facility in Ransomville, said she wants to bring more of her facility's kitchen workers to the next health department workshop.

As the head of a facility serving an older population who could be hard-hit if they were exposed to food-borne illness, Ms. Antonucci said after the workshop that she feels health department regulations are justified. "You have to watch everything" in the kitchen, she said.

Previously, training sessions were held only at individual restaurants, at the request of restaurant owners, Moore said. By offering education sessions to a wider range of food service workers, Moore and County Environmental Health Director James DeVald say they hope to reduce the number of health violations.

The department's long-term goal is to offer mandatory training and to develop specific food safety manuals for various types of establishments, DeVald said.

For now, the department is just evaluating the effectiveness of its training program and surveying county residents to gauge support for mandatory training. The department plans to continue voluntary monthly training sessions throughout 1998, he said.

Of the county's $1.6 million environmental health budget for 1997, DeVald estimated that about $2,000 -- or less than 1.5 percent of the budget -- is being spent on the monthly food service training sessions.

But a potential food poisoning emergency can cost several times that amount.

About 40 percent of the department's budget is reimbursed by New York State, with the rest coming from Niagara County.

Cafeterias or restaurants seen as being at a low or medium risk for passing on food poisoning are scheduled for annual inspections. Those involved in complex food preparation or where foods are served to people who are at a higher risk for food-borne illnesses (children and the elderly), receive at least one or two additional unscheduled inspections.

According to state Health Department statistics, from January through June of this year, the county health department investigated 30 emergency reports of food-related illness and 174 restaurant and food service complaints. Inspectors enforced disciplinary action at five of 269 establishments considered to be at a high risk for transmitting food-borne illnesses, 21 of 552 medium-risk establishments, and at 12 of 409 establishments classified as low-risk.

The County Health Department has the authority to close restaurants or cafeterias for health violations, but rarely takes that step, DeVald said.

Instead, the department prefers to work with restaurant owners and may ask them to voluntarily close until a violation is corrected, said Thomas Zona, supervisory public health sanitarian, an approach that benefits the restaurant by avoiding adverse publicity. The health department can assess fines of up to $1,000 per violation, per day.

So far this year, the health department has collected $2,550 in fines for violations at 19 restaurants in the county, DeVald said.

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