One Fair Wage's alternative to ServSafe draws fire

A beta version of the food-safety training program needs to get rid of some bugs, says an expert on the topic. But its producers say the issue is politics, not a dispute over best practices.
restaurant worker
Directives as basic as the proper use of gloves are faulted in the review. | Photo: Shutterstock

A food-safety training program developed by a union-backed group as a cheaper and less controversial alternative to ServSafe has been panned in its preliminary form by a longtime former New York City health official. 

But the union group, One Fair Wage, says the thumbs-down is unfair because it's based on a version of the training curriculum that was never intended to be more than a crude marketing test. "It was beyond even a beta version—it was probably a first draft to see if there was even any demand for a product like this," said Katherine Paseman, who'll be leading the rollout of the new Just.Safe.Food. program for One Fair Wage.

Rather, she says, the criticism is just another volley in the long-running political battle between One Fair Wage, a group committed to disallowing restaurant employers' use of the tip credit, and industry advocacy groups like the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), the research and lobbying shop that paid for the assessment of Just.Safe.Food. The EPI is widely believed to be supported financially by major restaurant chains but has declined to reveal its backers.

EPI acknowledges that the version of Just.Safe.Food. it paid to have evaluated was a draft obtained in January, before the launch was even announced.

The Just.Safe.Food. curriculum was developed under the auspices of One Fair Wage as a way for restaurant employees to be trained in the fundamentals of food safety without paying the $15 fee for ServSafe, the food safety program offered by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). 

In January, the New York Times ran an article about that $15 being used by the NRA to lobby for government measures benefitting restaurant employers at the expense of their employees. The piece also noted that a number of jurisdictions, including California, mandate that new hires take a food-safety training course, with ServSafe usually being the one chosen. Some estimates hold that ServSafe has about an 80% market share.

While noting that the association was not breaking any law, the piece contended that the association was tricking restaurant workers into fueling the promotion of laws and regulations that hurt them in the long run. One of its main sources was One Fair Wage, a usual adversary of the NRA on labor issues. It is funded in part by the Service Employees International Union, the largest union of hospitality workers, and is the group behind the drive to organize Starbucks.

A day after the article appeared, One Fair Wage revealed that it was developing Just.Safe.Food. as an alternative to ServSafe. The new program would be priced at just $10, the group said, and the money would help fund One Fair Wage’s various efforts to elevate the pay and working conditions of restaurant employees.

The website for Just.Safe.Food. indicates that the price has been cut to $5, and that includes three shots at passing the exam that earns the taker a food-safety certificate. But Paseman said the go-to-market price for the program has not yet been finalized.

EPI commissioned Beth Torin, a former executive director of the New York City Office of Food Safety for 14 years, to review most but not all of the food-safety instruction.

A report based on Torin’s review was provided by the EPI to Restaurant Business.  Page 2 provides a summary: “The initial review of this program raises red flags about the quality of the product One Fair Wage is promoting to employees and the media.”

The assessment goes on to fault Just.Safe.Food. for such blunders as repeatedly depicting barehand contact with food that’s served uncooked, a practice that can contaminate the fare. Some photos showed gloves being worn by a kitchen worker handling raw meat. Yet, the report notes, the precaution is unnecessary in that instance because cooking the meat will destroy bacteria, a step known as the kill stage.

In general, according to the report, the instruction is marred by inconsistencies and obvious misdirection, like illustrating proper hand washing with pictures that show a bar of soap being used.  The recommended practice is to use a dispensed liquid soap for handwashing, since a bar can transfer pathogens from one user to another.

The review notes that the materials also fail to use standardized food-safety terms and language, right down to employing the phrase “food born” instead of the correct term, “foodborne.” The variances could prove confusing if co-workers use the established lingo, the report asserted.

Paseman chuckled when she heard the criticisms. They're the sort of mistakes and typos that are caught in a final proofreading, she observed. Plus, Just.Safe.Food. has hired a consultancy called Simple Learning to catch those and other errors before marketing of the program begins.

It won't be offered before January, she added.

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