Ottawa County Environmental Health duo honored for food safety work

Senior Environmental Health Specialist Rebekah Folkert found her job with the Ottawa County Department of Public Health in a somewhat fateful way.

“I was working on my master’s in public health at Grand Valley State University and waiting tables at a restaurant. While at work one day, our restaurant health inspector came in for a routine inspection, and I had the thought, ‘Hey, I think what she’s doing is public health,’” Folkert explains. “I was able to sit down with the inspector as she wrote the report, and she was great about answering all my questions about the job and how it relates to the field of public health. I had been keeping an eye on Ottawa County jobs, and the one I have now became available just two weeks after that encounter.”

Fellow Senior Environmental Health Specialist Kayla Anderson had a different kind of fateful experience to get where she is today.

“I have aspired to work in environmental health since the age of 14,” Anderson says. “I contacted the Ottawa County Department of Public Health during my last semester of undergraduate school to inquire about job shadowing. Shortly after, I became a volunteer, and then transitioned into an internship. I served as an environmental health technician, and am now in my current role as a senior environmental health specialist.” 

Both women’s hard work and passion have paid off; they were both recognized at the Michigan Environmental Health Association (MEHA) Annual Education Conference on March 15. Anderson earned the Samuel M. Stephenson Sanitarian of the Year Award, which recognizes outstanding service to MEHA and the environmental health profession within the past three years. Folkert earned the Distinguished Service Award to recognize her outstanding accomplishments in environmental health.
Ottawa County’s Senior Environmental Health Specialist Rebekah Folkert earned the Distinguished Service Award and Senior Environmental Health Specialist Kayla Anderson earned the Samuel M. Stephenson Sanitarian of the Year Award.
Primary role

Environmental health specialists typically focus on an area of the environment in topics such as food, water/soil, air, or lead. Folkert is a food safety specialist for the county, and Anderson is the lead foodborne illness investigator. The primary role of the food safety team is the routine inspection of licensed food service establishments in the county, such as restaurants, schools, food trucks, and breweries.

“We visit all facilities one to two times per year for inspections. We also issue temporary licenses to events such as festivals or community gatherings,” Folkert explains. “Other responsibilities our team has include reviewing plans for all incoming restaurants and approving them before they are built; education and food safety outreach and training; surveillance of all incoming foodborne illnesses and complaints to monitor for foodborne illness outbreaks; inspecting day care facilities; and inspecting body art facilities.” 

Every day in this profession is different — from inspecting restaurants and developing educational materials to investigating an illness, reviewing plans, or following up on complaint inspections — the specialists say.

“I love building relationships with the people who work in my restaurants. We all have assigned areas and go to the same restaurants for each routine inspection. This allows us to get to know the menu, the facility, and the people,” Folkert says. “The familiarity helps us know what they are more likely to struggle with or help them through challenging parts of their operation. Restaurant owners are more comfortable when they know who to expect, and we can have really good conversations about their menus and processes. The restaurants I’ve been inspecting for many years have become great partners. Not only do we work well together addressing food safety practices in their establishments, but they also are supportive of public health and work with us on projects for the Department of Public Health that help educate the community about food safety practices.”

Partnership before enforcement

While the flexibility and diversity of the work are major pros to their job, the cons usually land on the side of having to enforce the Food Code and food laws. 

“Our team’s preference is always to start with partnership and education to help correct violations of the Food Code and food laws,” Folkert explains. “We teach the owners and managers about the correct way to handle food safety and include the ‘why’ behind it to help educate them about keeping their customers safe. Enforcement is required only if places have repeated violations or fail to make corrections. The majority of our facilities work well with us and maintain corrections over time so they don’t reach the enforcement stage, but some unfortunately do. But that eventually leads to another favorite part of the job, which is that moment when a restaurant that has been struggling with noncompliance suddenly has a breakthrough and understands why they should follow the food safety practices and finds a way into compliance that works best for them.”

Anderson echoes that sentiment.

“I have encountered several challenging enforcement situations over the years. During these situations, I had the opportunity to walk alongside restaurant operators and establish a relationship with them as they overcame obstacles and achieved success,” she says.

Both women are grateful for the recognition and excited to continue to do the work and build the relationships necessary to keep businesses open and the community educated and healthy. 

“I love public health and working at a local county health department, so I really hope to be able to continue working with people doing anything that will help improve the health of the community,” Folkert says. “We have a great team at the department that is really focused on initiatives that address health needs in the community. It would be an honor to continue my work with my team and in this department.”

Food safety words

Folkert and Anderson want to express that food safety is for everybody. Up to 80% of foodborne illness is caused by food prepared at home. The four words to remember to ensure safety are Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.
  1. Clean: Wash hands, surfaces such as dishes and counters, and fruits and vegetables. However, you shouldn’t wash meat, poultry, or eggs. Doing so spreads germs around the kitchen and doesn’t actually reduce bacteria or viruses.
  2. Separate: Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from other types of raw meats or fresh produce. They should be kept separate at the grocery store, in your refrigerator, and when you’re preparing them.
  3. Cook: Cook raw proteins to the correct temperature.
  4. Chill: Cooling hot food down to a cooler temperature must be done quickly. Cool leftovers by portioning them into smaller containers and leaving the lid uncovered. Don’t put steaming hot food directly into your home refrigerator or it will cause the entire refrigerator to warm.
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Read more articles by Kelsey Sanders.