RALEIGH — State food safety officials made clear Friday that dogs are not allowed in outdoor dining areas of restaurants and say they are working to rewrite the rule to make that clearer.
State officials say a clarified rule would likely not go into effect until 2011. In the meantime, it appears Wake County residents will be able to take their pooches to restaurant patios.
Last month, Wake County health inspectors told restaurant owners that state rules do not allow dogs at outside tables, angering both dog-loving customers and recession-weary restaurateurs. A few days later, Wake County Attorney Scott Warren issued an opinion saying dogs were allowed.
Wake County health inspectors are deferring to Warren's opinion, said Andre C. Pierce, the county's director of environmental health and safety. Pierce said the county's health inspectors have not really enforced the rule.
Pierce said the county is more focused on enforcing rules related to employee hygiene, contamination, food temperatures and approved food sources.
Larry Michael, the head of the food protection branch of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said Friday that the state has always maintained that pets are not allowed in indoor or outdoor dining areas. He said any restaurant caught with an unauthorized animal, excluding police dogs and service animals for the disabled, could have two points deducted from its sanitation score.
"We view it as a violation if there are dogs in outdoor dining areas," Michael said during a meeting of the department's food service advisory committee, where he was asked about the issue by restaurant owners.
Michael said the opinion was based on advice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the state public health's veterinary office. The FDA food safety rules, which federal authorities urge states to adopt, say that "animals carry disease-causing organisms and can transmit pathogens to humans through direct and/or indirect contamination of food and food-contact surfaces....Animals shed hair continuously and may deposit liquid or fecal waste."
An e-mail message from FDA officials shared with the committee states "any fecal oral route pathogen carried in the dog's intestine is also found on the dog's hair because a dog grooms itself with their tongues, and in the process, spread any fecal pathogens found on the dog's anus, to other parts of their body hair. This contaminated dog hair is shed continuously by the animal."
The illnesses that can be caused by dogs include campylobacteriosis, which can cause diarrhea, cramps, fever and headaches, and staph infections.
Ian Sauer, who owns restaurants and hotels from Wilmington to Charlotte, asked how state officials were defining the restaurant's premises. Donna Wanucha, a regional retail food specialist with the FDA, said its rules prohibit animals on any premises controlled by the restaurant owner, including the parking lot. Tommy Haddock, who owns Bojangles' restaurants in Raleigh and Durham, asked if he would be violating the state rule if he left his dog in his car in the parking lot.
Michael said state officials would not advise county health inspectors to police dogs in parked cars since they don't pose a risk of food-borne illnesses.
Others asked whether dogs were banned from areas outside restaurants where the staff doesn't offer service and if restaurants were expected to clean those areas if dogs had been there.
Michael said those issues would be addressed before rewriting the rule.
Sam Hobgood, the owner of Big Ed's restaurant in downtown Raleigh, raised concerns about the public's reaction to what may be perceived as a new crackdown. Michael responded, "This is not a new interpretation, not a new change."
Haddock, the Bojangles' owner, replied, "Whether the rule has been in place or not, it's always been ignored."
Haddock later added: "Dogs have been eating with customers in Europe for years and years and years. They don't have any more food-borne illnesses than here."
Michael said he would take Friday's discussion into consideration when drafting the revised rule and hopes to have a draft soon. The state will hold public hearings on the revised rule.
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