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Environmental Public Health Division

September is National Food Safety Education Month

FDA Advice to Retail and Foodservice Operations on Raw Oysters Shipped With “For Cooking Only” Label As Part Of A Vibrio parahaemolyticus Control Plan

Food Safety

 Frequently Asked Questions

The Environmental Public Health Division of Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services (HCPHES) is responsible for the approximately 6,500 retail food establishments located within the unincorporated areas of the county as well as in 18 cities that do not have their own health department. Retail food establishments include restaurants, fast food outlets, grocery stories, conveniences stores, bars, day cares, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, bakeries, temporary events, and mobile food units.  With the exception of convenience stores that do not prepare or serve food, each of these establishments is required to have a manager on duty who is trained in sanitation and safe food handling procedures.  In addition, HCPHES investigators inspect food establishments several times each year and, if requested, will offer an educational session for food service workers.

What laws and regulations does HCPHES follow?  Harris County Commissioner's Court adopted the Texas Food Establishment Rules (TFER) in June 1999.  Operation of the food inspection program is also governed by the Texas Health and Safety Code.  Unlike the City of Houston, Harris County may not pass ordinances that exceed state requirements or laws.

Who does HCPHES serve?  HCPHES inspects and permits all retail food establishments in the unincorporated areas of Harris County as well as in the cities of Tomball, Katy, Jacinto City, Galena Park, LaPorte, Morgan's Point, South Houston, Seabrook, El Lago, Southside Place, Hunter's Creek, Piney Point, Bunker Hill, Jersey Village, Spring Valley, Deer Park, Humble, Waller, and West University Place.

How frequently is a food establishment inspected?  Inspection frequency is based on a risk assessment conducted in conjunction with the annual permitting inspection.  Risk assessments determine the likelihood of a food establishment causing a foodborne illness.   Criteria utilized for the risk assessment are: type of food processed or prepared, method of food preparation, population served (young children, infirm, elderly), number of customers, past sanitation and food safety history, and whether food manager's certification requirements are met.  Establishments are categorized from very high to very low risk.  Inspection frequency ranges from 6 times per year for very high risk establishments to 1 time per year for very low risk establishments. 

Are food establishment managers and food handlers required to be trained in food safety and sanitation?  Establishments that prepare, process, or serve food must have a manager trained in food safety and sanitation on duty during all hours of operation.  Although food handler training is not required by law, food establishments are encouraged to participate in Harris County’s free food safety program for food handlers.  For information regarding training, please refer to Managers’ Food School Schedule or Food Handler Training.

What is a foodborne illness?

Foodborne illness is caused by consuming contaminated foods or beverages.  There are more than 250 different foodborne diseases, most of which are caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites.  The most common foodborne diseases are caused by Campylobacter, Salmonella, E-coli bacteria and Norwalk virus.  Other common diseases are occasionally foodborne.  These are caused by shigella bacteria, hepatitis A virus, and the parasites Giardia and Cryptosporidia.  Toxins produced by certain bacteria can also cause foodborne illness (botulism.) In addition, poisonous chemicals or other harmful substances can cause foodborne illnesses (for example, poisonous mushrooms and poisonous reef fishes.) 

How do I file a foodborne illness complaint against a restaurant or other retail food establishment?  If you believe you have become ill from eating at a restaurant or other food establishment, contact your local health department.  The health department is an important part of the food safety system.  Often calls from concerned citizens are how outbreaks are first discovered.  For establishments in unincorporated Harris County or any of the cities listed above, please call (713) 439-6270 or report online at foodcomplaint.htm.

How do I file a complaint regarding sanitary conditions at a restaurant or other retail food establishment?

To report dirty conditions or unsafe food handling practices at a restaurant or other food establishment, call (713) 439-6270.

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Last updated: August 28, 2008
Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services
2223 West Loop South
Houston, TX 77027
Tel: (713) 439-6000
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