The state will not set a time frame for a decision and won't fine the hospitals.
WARREN -- The Ohio Department of Agriculture says two Warren hospitals will have to cease their long-standing arrangement with Trumbull County Mobile Meals unless they obtain state licensing or take control of the volunteer help.
The state says Forum Health Trumbull Memorial Hospital and St. Joseph Health Center cannot meet a catering exemption. The state's meat inspection and legal divisions looked into the hospitals' exemption request and this week notified both of the decision.
These hospitals have partnered with Mobile Meals for 35 years in an effort that involves hundreds of meals and volunteers. They deliver two meals -- hot and cold -- per day, both at lunchtime.
Spokesmen at both hospitals could not be reached Friday afternoon.
"We were very, very clear that we do not want to deny food to anyone in need," said Dr. W. Michael Hockman, chief of the ODA's meat inspection division. "Now that we've identified they are not in regulatory compliance, the hospitals either need to become licensed, become exempt, or discontinue the operation if they don't want to do No. 1 or No. 2."
Becoming exempt would mean the hospitals taking control of the current Mobile Meals volunteers -- and making them hospital volunteers.
"The volunteers have to be responsible to them, and them only," explained Dr. Steve Close, assistant meat inspection division chief. "If they control the volunteers themselves, they'll meet the exemption."
Volunteers, Dr. Hockman said, are "the same as employees in this scenario" under the Ohio Food Code.
The state did not set a time frame for the hospitals to decide a course and isn't levying a fine, though fines could be levied in a court process if the matter is not resolved.
"Now that it's been defined they're operating outside the regulatory arena, they need to move quickly and we can't drag this on for an indefinite period of time," Dr. Hockman said.
Mobile Meals, 280 High St. N.W., started in November 1970 to provide the meals to anyone in need. The hospitals prepare the food during the course of daily patient meal-making and are reimbursed monthly by Mobile Meals for the cost of the food supplies only. Mobile Meals charges a nominal fee or uses a sliding scale based on ability to pay. The effort receives some income from charities and United Way of Trumbull County.
The state's position is that the hospitals are essentially a food distributor and, therefore, should be licensed and inspected accordingly. Oversight of the meals changes to Mobile Meals once they leave the hospitals.
"It's about food safety -- it's about ensuring the food is controlled through the end to the consumer," Dr. Hockman said. "It's clear to us those volunteers are really volunteers of Trumbull Mobile Meals -- and maybe also the hospitals, to a degree. But it appears to us as control is a shared control, and the law does not recognize a shared control for volunteers."
The federal government since the mid-1990s has backed a systematic approach for reviewing food preparation, from the receipt of foods to their final distribution, to prevent food-borne illnesses. The process is called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point.
The licensing would require that the hospitals follow HACCP. Licensing costs $50 for one year, and the federal government covers 50 percent of the program's cost. An inspector checks the paperwork and sanitation standards.
The hospitals instead had proposed a 16-week program of additional training for volunteers on food safety, food handling and equipment sanitization. Volunteers also would get training in menu and recipe ingredients, labeling and temperature maintenance, among other things.