A widely used tool for safeguarding restaurant food is under fire. / Photo: Shutterstock

Peter says…

Despite our tender ages, Nancy, you and I have been following restaurants long enough to know the best and the worst about the business. And there’s no doubt the industry has its skeletons. Any industry as large and dependent on a young workforce is going to have its horrors.

But it’s also spawned two programs that could make motherhood and apple pie seem tawdry in comparison. They’re just that good.

One is ProStart, the education program that’s saved many a nonconforming high schooler from dropping out and going wrong. It provides an alternate path to success for young people who might otherwise feel like misfits in a traditional school curriculum. Simultaneously, it helps the industry develop standout talent. Even Mother Teresa couldn’t criticize the venture, given how many lives it’s positively affected.

The other is ServSafe, the food-safety training program that’s saved countless lives and made the U.S. restaurant industry the most trustworthy in the world, especially for parents. It’s simple, inexpensive, science-based, transportable—and effective.

It’s also transparent. Guests aren’t aware that ServSafe principles and practices are even in place, so there’s no tradeoff of experience for safety as there is in air travel, for instance. Patrons would really be astonished to learn the measures protecting them from food poisoning were shaped in part by the space program.

Yet ServSafe is under fierce attack right now, in part because the public is oblivious to its tremendous benefits. Organized labor has seized on the program as a cudgel for whacking the hell out of its longstanding political rival and the marketer of ServSafe, the National Restaurant Association.

Proxies of the union-backed group One Fair Wage have asserted in a federal lawsuit that ServSafe is a con run by the NRA to fund its lobbying against mandated wage hikes and benefit increases for restaurant workers.

The action alleges that the association lobbies states and local jurisdictions to require food-safety training for restaurant employees. Then the NRA provides the required certification program to new hires for $15 a pop. The proceeds are channeled into the revenue pool from which the NRA’s pro-management lobbying dollars are drawn. 

The suit asserts that ServSafe does nothing to bolster food safety, and that its sole real purpose is to generate money for the NRA to hold workers down.

A day before the suit was filed, The New York Times ran an article sounding the same assertion.

Plenty of misinformation is a-swirl in the high-profile blasts that are being leveled at the NRA and ServSafe. But let’s keep our focus here on an essential omission: ServSafe is an exemplary program that has likely saved tens of thousands of lives, if not more.

It’s the program public health officials want in place from coast to coast to keep dining out safe. It’s what school districts rely upon to safeguard children’s lunches, and how hospital foodservices protect vulnerable patients. And it only costs $15. Contrary to what the Times reported, employees are routinely compensated after earning a ServSafe certificate, though many employers require new hires to front the money so it’s in their best interest to complete the course.  

I strongly suspected I’m preaching to the choir here, Nancy. But maybe it’s time to set the record straight.

ServSafe’s roots extend back to 1919. If it is a scam, it may be the longest running one in history.  

Until about 2007, it was offered by the nonprofit educational arm of the National Restaurant Association, the NRA Educational Foundation. The group’s charter expressly forbade it from lobbying or using its revenues for that process.

In 2007, the Educational Foundation sold ServSafe to the National Restaurant Association. It was a controversial move that upset many on the NRA and EF’s boards because it was politically motivated. Yes, the impetus was the desire to channel ServSafe revenues into the main association’s war chest.

But the sale of certification programs by a lobbying force is hardly novel. Indeed, it’s a routine way for trade associations to bolster their revenues. The practice wasn’t controversial for the NRA until the Times ran what it treated as an expose.  The association never hid the relationship, as any watcher of the group could attest.

It’s also important to note that no dollar paid for a ServSafe course flows immediately and directly into the campaign fund of a lawmaker being wooed by the association. The proceeds become part of a general revenue pool, the source for expenses ranging from staff travel to office snacks, which we hear are exceptional.

Any TV watcher knows that politics have devolved into a destroy-or-be-destroyed endeavor. Nothing seems to be out of bounds. But we’re deep in the mud when a program that saves lives can become a political football.

I wish the industry would rise up to defend what should be a point of pride. What do you think, Nancy? Can I interest you in a bullhorn and a walk toward One Fair Wage’s headquarters?

Nancy says…

Damn, Peter, I hate it when this happens. Every month I do mental calisthenics to get myself in shape to refute your wrong-headed opinions and take a stand on the right side of an issue. Looks like I wasted my time this month.

Like you, I’m appalled at the noisy and ill-informed grandstanding around a worthwhile program. As you point out, this needless time suck is yet another example of the politicization of our food chain, in which opposing voices find ready amplification on both conventional and, perhaps more potently in this case, social media, regardless of the value of their arguments.

A cursory review of TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, which play a major role in forming the opinions of legions of current and potential restaurant employees, is both instructive and dispiriting. There are innumerable, smile-inducing posts from proud students and whole back-of-house teams bragging on their freshly minted ServSafe certifications. There’s also plenty of information about the program, as well as some questionable samples of the test and even the purported answers.

And there are a growing number of castigators as well. By and large, most appear to represent One Fair Wage, and they’ve reposted the story from the New York Times, along with a similar screed from the Washington Post. They’ve also inserted numerous talking heads who decry the “#ServSafe Scam,” invite viewers to “game the system” and call on them to “harass the NRA.” To that end, they’ve posted the contact info for Michelle Korsmo, president and CEO of the organization.

Buried deep in the social media thicket I found one post that touts Just Safe Food, One Fair Wage’s putative answer to ServSafe. Available for the low, low price of $10, the website makes no bones about the fact that proceeds go to minimum wage advocacy groups.

But my subsequent search of the One Fair Wage website, the internet at large and various social media platforms failed to find any trace of the initiative. So we have no way of vetting its efficacy or quality of instruction. I did, however, come across a riveting TikTok post from a truly enterprising young woman who shows viewers how to twerk while studying for the ServSafe exam. Wow, talk about killing two birds with one stone.

Speaking of amusing, I was both exasperated and entertained by your story on the righteously indignant group of U.S. senators who are demanding intel and accounting from the NRA on how ServSafe proceeds are used.

You note with admirable restraint, I think, that said officials want a full set of course materials to determine if it merits any fee at all. By whose lights, I wonder? I personally think a better use of taxpayer dollars would be to embed the group for a week of so on the front line and in the back of house, manning the fry station, dealing with patrons at peak periods and, perhaps, gaining insight into serious and substantive matters like trying to make it on a minimum wage, say, or the crying need for affordable child care. 

The bottom line for me is that using ServSafe as a political cudgel is yet another tiresome diversion of attention away from larger, overriding issues that get kicked down the road and/or stuck in committee hell at the expense of the body politic.

Like you, Peter, I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and ServSafe is deserving of praise and widespread implementation. That’s only fair, because as you know, I’m also willing to grab the pitchfork when our duly elected representatives, member-supported trade groups, NGOs and sundry advocacy groups substitute cheap theatrics for a meaningful stand on important issues.

Having seconded your opinion, I’m going to trade my choir robe for a leotard. My twerking class starts in 10 minutes, and I’ve got to get in shape for next month’s exchange. 

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