Mission District restaurant owners reacted Wednesday with frustration, confusion and disbelief to the news that arrived in the mail: the Department of Public Health had discovered “irregularities” and their Food Safety Certificates — critical to operating — were no longer valid.

“I don’t want anything bad to happen to me,” said Virginia Montano, owner of Jocelyn’s Bakery on the Corner of 21st and Lexington. “It’s not my fault.”

“If they want me to take the test again I’ll have to close for the day.”

Montano was among the 345 restaurants including 48 Mission establishments notified Wednesday  that one or more of their employees held invalid certificates and would have to retake the $30 exam within the next 60 days.

Only one person in each restaurant needs to hold a certificate, an assurance that someone  knows how to properly handle food to avoid contamination. It needs to be renewed every five years.

The decision to void the certificates came after City Attorney Dennis J. Herrera’s office concluded that three health inspectors, while working as independent contractors for two test-administrating organizations, “engaged in a range of improper conduct in administrating these examinations.”

In some instances, individuals received a certificate without ever having taken the exam. Others were given the answers during the tests. And yet others were given the answers prior to the test, according to health department documents.

There were also issues of conflicts of interest, according to investigators.

But certificate holders in the Mission District said there was no wrongdoing on their part.

“They kept canceling on me,” said Butros Baqain, owner and lone operator of Jump Start Coffee and Whole Foods at 24th and Guerrero. Like others, he professed innocence and said he had paid his money, taken his test, and passed it. He said, however, that he had experienced difficulty in scheduling the exam.

“I told them, ‘I can’t do this anymore. There’s no one to cover for me.’ Now you’re telling me that it’s not valid!”

Eileen Shields, public information officer for the Department of Public Health, said that the three inspectors investigated worked for the health department in charge of enforcing California food safety laws in San Francisco eateries. They administered the voided tests while moonlighting, she said.

Shields said health department employees must inform their supervisors if they want to work during their off-hours, something the inspectors did not do.

“These three people were operating as independent contractors — they were moonlighting,” Shields said. “They were working after-hours and on weekends teaching a food safety class.”

She said an anonymous tipster brought the problem to their attention.

“Because it was the health department and we are charged with enforcing food safety certification … we sort of had a double responsibility to follow up on this,” Shields told Mission Loc@l. “If certificates were being issued illegally and unfairly then we need to put a stop to that and we needed to put a stop to anyone in our employment who was acting unethical.”

Two of the three inspectors no longer work for the heath department. The identities of the inspectors are not being released.

Jason Rose, culinary director at La Cocina, a nonprofit community kitchen devoted to fostering local culinary entrepreneurs, had yet to open his mail, but said, “I just got a stack of about 10 letters from Public Health.”

Even high-end restaurants were not immune to having their certification canceled.

“To find this out is quite a shock,” said Tomas Sazo, head chef at Medjool. “I’m clean. I like my stuff organized.”

Medjool’s response, according to Sazo, is that they are going to have all management take the test.

The Department of Public Health offers an intensive one-day training for the test.  A practice quiz on the department’s web site includes these questions.

3.When we cook food, we change its taste, appearance, and texture.  We also
a.   spoiled it.
b. contaminated it.
c. heat-shocked it.
d. made the food mass anaerobic.

4. Disease causing germs are killed by
a. enough cooking.
b. enough refrigeration.
c. enough freezing.
d. adding acid to food.

5. The most important sanitation act for a foodhandler to do?
a. wear disposable gloves.
b. pop all ripe pimples.
c. shave arms and armpits.
d. wash hands often.

The correct answers: D, A, D.

The tests are given in Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Koren or Vietnamese. 

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