Friday, September 12, 2008

Hey, maybe we all can get along

I’m usually skeptical when I hear government or industry beating a drum for collaboration in lieu of regulation. In the midst of the tomato/jalapeno/Serrano salmonella epidemic, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration’s call for more industry responsibility and involvement came off as nothing more than finger-pointing—“This wouldn’t be happening if industry did a better job of record-keeping. After all, we don’t have the money to do that ourselves.”

And the private sector’s frequent cries for cooperation sound like thinly masked pleas to be left alone: “We prefer that boards of health and other government watchdogs work with us, not against us. It’s merely a coincidence that we hate paying fines and being forced to meet their standards.”

Then comes yesterday’s news from Oregon. As reported, the state’s restaurateurs and Occupational Safety and Health Department have forged an agreement committed to paper—a veritable contract—to work in tandem for the safety of foodservice employees.

According to coverage in Oregon’s press, this was no photo op pretending to be a significant announcement. As part of the deal, state experts will be dispatched to consult with restaurateurs in their establishments about ways of making the operations safer. An examination of the safeguards already in place would presumably be part of that process, along with a diagnosis of what the restaurant is doing wrong. But the restaurateurs have the assurance that they won’t be penalized for what the state reps might find.

It’s as if the state is sending a force of consultants into the trade, without the follow-up invoices that typically follow consultants more closely than their shadows.

Safety officials, meanwhile, can focus on safety, without the usual sword fighting about blame, fines and being realistic. Not that their fencing abilities will be allowed to lapse. Oregon’s workplace safety inspectors will continue to do their job, and will issue fines accordingly, local press reports note. Presumably the task will just be a lot easier, since restaurants will have a clearer idea of what they should be doing, and virtually no excuse if they don’t heed the advice.

And in a state where reportedly one out of every 14 state residents is employed by a foodservice establishment, that’s good thing.

So kudos to the Oregon Restaurant Association for entering into the deal and thereby blazing a path for peers in other locations to possibly follow. The agreement it signed could prove a welcome model for all sorts of regulatory agencies in all kinds of jurisdictions.

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