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Committee seeks answers about food law

LANSING — The Michigan House Agriculture Committee conducted a hearing on Wednesday to hear testimony from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) on the licensing process for food establishments and current COVID-19 orders.

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Julie Alexander (R) 64th District, Hanover, opened the hearing by saying its purpose was for the committee to better understand the role MDARD plays in Michigan food law, which was made a public act in 2000, the food service licensing process, and the implications from the current COVID-19 orders.

At the heart of the committee’s concern is the plummeting food establishment industry in Michigan since the coronavirus pandemic first appeared in the state.

During opening comments, Alexander said every representative has heard stories of restaurants in their communities.

“The heartbreaking stories of their financial challenges with the continued shutdowns and the impacts on their employees, definitely resonates on all of us hard.” she said. “As representatives, we take their calls, we take their emails, and most often help them navigate an overwhelmed unemployment insurance system.”

MDARD, she said, has responsibility for the overall food safety quality assurance programs for the approximately 46,000 Michigan food service facilities, with inspections carried out by local public health agencies under the general guidance of MDARD. It is the local health departments that have the responsibility to enforce laws and regulations. The system, however, is failing and the food industry, which is responsible for 10% of the state’s employment, is crashing.

“These people have families they feed with these businesses. People are trying to survive,” said Alexander. “Their voices need to be heard, and we hope to gain insight today from the testimony from MDARD.”

The industry has been all but completely devastated.

Between February and October 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that individuals working in restaurants in Michigan had plummeted by 24.0%. The survey, conducted by the BLS, found that the national average for restaurant and related job losses was 14.7%.

When bars, restaurants, and other food service establishments and facilities were studied, the BLS reported that during that same stretch, more than a quarter –26.5% of Michigan workers in that industry — had lost their jobs. Nationally, the average for food service and bars was 14.8%, by comparison.

In February 2020, the BLS survey reported that across the state, food services and drinking places industry accounted for 325,600 jobs in Michigan. By April, that number had plummeted to 145,000, and by October, the number had rebounded somewhat to 239,200 jobs.

In a Jan. 22, 2021, Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association (MRLA) release, MRLA President and CEO Justing Winslow stated: “The hospitality industry and its sizable workforce has suffered far worse than its peers from this pandemic, losing nearly 3,000 restaurants and employing 200,000 fewer workers than a year prior. It also stands to gain the most from a proficient and expedited vaccination schedule, which is why we contend that there is no more important step the governor can take to get Michigan’s economy back on track than restoring public confidence in Michiganders ability to safely dine and travel.”

At the House Agriculture Committee hearing Wednesday, MDARD Director Gary McDowell and Food and Dairy Division Director Tim Slawinski provided an overview of the department’s licensing of restaurants, saying he knows there have been a lot of questions about that.

Restaurants and food service establishments do hold an MDARD license, Slawinski said, but they are regulated by the local health departments. Under the Food Law, MDARD is given authority to license and regulate food establishments in the state of Michigan, which includes restaurants. Also under the Food Law, authority is delegated to local health departments with the responsibility for enforcement of laws and regulations establishments must follow.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unique challenges for everyone, Slawinski said. With our mission to protect public health as it relates to food establishments, MDARD has received thousands of COVID-related complaints regarding food establishments. Complaints related to retail and manufacturing establishments are handled by MDARD, but food establishment-related complaints are referred to the local health department, per the fool law.

Slawinski testified that with the rise in COVID cases and the resulting emergency orders from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), MDARD began receiving requests for assistance from health departments that had already taken enforcement action, but were ignored. The health departments in those instances were trying to escalate in an effort to reduce health risks in those establishments.

“So, we did develop a process for health departments to escalate situations to us,” he said, “which we would review. We would assess the information provided by the local health department, the epidemic orders, what were the conditions, in terms of case rate activity, and also CDC guide(lines).”

MDARD would then issue a determination after the health department had issued its own cease and desist order, did an imminent threat to public health still exist.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that will examine why the Michigan restaurant and drinking place industry has been the target of frequent shutdowns and restrictions.

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