Members of the Prince George's County council began preparing legislation last week to change what several members have called the over-regulation, lack of communication and duplication of the county's food and drink regulations.
After a series of work sessions with representatives of the county and state health departments, council member Darlene Z. White said she is considering proposals to increase the price of food-handling permits, to require all restauranteurs to take courses on food-handling regulations and to change some of the county regulations so that they will be similar to state food and drink regulations.
At the same time council member William B. Amonett said he may ask the council to repeal the county regulations altogether.
"I see a lot of merit in the county just adopting the state regulations," said Amonett. "That way there would only be one set of laws with which industry people would have to comply. Now the two sets cause confusion, which is a major part of the problem."
The work sessions began after several council members said they received calls "from scores" of food and drink handlers - restaurant, fast-food, carry-out and "chuckwagon style" owners - saying they were harrassed by what they called "arbitrary decisions" by sanitation inspectors.
The county has approximately 1,585 licensed food establishments, 149 vending locations and 252 schools which must be regulated and inspected four times a year for possible violations of both county and state regulations.
Several industry spokesmen attending the work session last week heard county and state health department officials reply to written the oral complaints offered by both chain and "mom and pop" restaurant owners.
Most were concerned about "fuzzy" regulations and were seeking to clear up problems where the law is vague. It is here, they said, where they find the inspectors decisions' the most arbitrary. Vagueness ranged from the specific height of sneeze shields for salad bars to a better definition of how to produce a rare steak if regulations say it must be cooked at 140 degrees.
"The industry has been able to work with the inspectors for the most part," said Yale Marcus, owner of Lee's Restaurant in Hyattsville. "But, look, in my restaurant I have a salad bar. And I bought a sneeze shield with three different protective angles for it. One inspector says it is okay at the first angle. Two years later another health inspector comes in and says it should be set at the third position. Then two years later, another comes in and say to put it at the second position. What do you do?"
The testy question of sneeze shields has caused a few council members some grief as well - when they act as the diners who have to maneuver around the shields seeking salad in a restaurant.
"You make a 10-inch shield, a 10-inch opening and a 24-inch ladle," said David G. Hartlove, "and you can't get the darn dressing on the salad without contortions."
One restaurant owner, who asked that his name not be used, said his restaurants have had to lower the sneeze shields on their salad bars to such an extent that it makes them difficult to use.
"I find this aggravating and a harrassment," he said. "I run a very clean restaurant and I am concerned about protecting our customers. But you must have a realistic approach to regulation.
"We are not here to cause conflict with the health department. But some of the health inspectors are a little overzealous in their regulating. Their time would be better spent in looking at kitchens and coolers where the customer can't go than in measuring something that the customer can see and decide about for himself."
Amonett said he felt a "fear of reprisal" from health inspectors kept several industry representatives away from the meeting. A few owners said they could not discuss the matter if they were quoted by name.
"Some (who hold licenses in this county) have that fear," said Marcus. "I can't tell you why and I can't get answers from them about why. At one time I had it, but by going up to the health department I've been able to put that fear aside. Once you are exposed to them (inspectors) and are actively trying to keep up (to code) you get rid of the fear."
Dr. Donald K. Wallace, county health officer, said, "These folks who say they are harrassed, picked on, etc. by the inspectors, these are the people we want to talk to and find out what's wrong."
"Perhaps the fear is from being ignorant," said Marcus. "We need mandatory education for them about the regulations when they first get their licenses."
The restauranteurs at the work session said they supported mandatory courses for people seeking licenses. And council members said they felt the dialogue established during the sessions, with people reporting back to the Beverage and License Association and the county's Restaurant Association, would ease future complaints about overregulation.
One person attending the meeting added, "What started out as a witch hunt became an educational period for both sides."