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How I passed the food safety exam

I know enough to cook chicken until it isn't pink in the middle. My mother drummed into me the importance of washing my hands before touching food. Beyond that, my skills in the kitchen are lacking; I'm certainly not up for my own Food Network show.

How then could I pass the nationally-accredited exam Massachusetts requires to certify that restaurant managers and municipal inspectors have the knowledge to keep customers protected from foodborne illnesses?

I passed because the examination is common sense. It's easy.

So easy that I took it without taking the prescribed eight-hour training class. So easy that I didn't read any of the materials. I just signed up online, paid $99, showed up, and filled in the bubbles with a Number 2 pencil. Less than two hours later I was out, confident I had passed.

I scored 82 percent; then passing grade is 75. I now have a five-year certification.

By the standards demanded by Massachusetts and about 35 other states, I am a Certified Food Protection Manager. In Massachusetts, the credential is also required for restaurant inspectors.

Do I have the expertise to do either? Absolutely not. I'd be lost in a kitchen.

I have no idea what temperature I'd have to cook fish to in order to ensure it's safe to eat. The proper way to clean cookware? Haven't a clue. What I can do is pass a multiple choice exam by eliminating obvious wrong answers and using common sense to figure out the rest.

Suzanne K. Condon, the associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, who oversees environmental health issues, told another Globe reporter that the state's training and certification requirements set "minimal standards.” Condon declined to give a "yes” or "no” answer when asked whether the standards should be raised. But she said: "Can we improve upon that? Yes.”

The test I took, called ServSafe, is developed by the educational arm of the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry's trade group. ServSafe is by far the largest of three national testing agancies that give such certification exams. Since 1987, the restaurant association's educational foundation has awarded more than three million food protection manager certificates.

LeAnn Chuboff, the director of science and regulatory relations at the NRA, told the Globe reporter that the certification test is based on standards set by a national body that includes federal and state food safety experts.

The NRA's local affiliate, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, thinks the test requires extensive knowledge. Passing the ServSafe exam, the MRA declares on its website, "does require detailed knowledge of food safety and the prevention of foodborne illness.''

How, then, could a Globe reporter pass it so easily? Test-takers, Chuboff said, often know more than they think they do: They practice safe hygiene at home. They remember what their parents taught them. "They might even have knowledge from watching Oprah,” she added.

What puzzled Chuboff is that I was able to take the exam without the eight-hour classroom component. She told the other reporter her office will determine how that could have happened.

"We can't let that go,” Chuboff said.

Any possible fallout, Chuboff was asked. "Yes,'' she said. "We may revoke her certification.”

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