FARGO-Your favorite sushi restaurant might be getting inspected more often at the start of the year. Kitchens that prepare meals for vulnerable populations will see extra check-ups, too.

They're both among the businesses to be inspected more often under a new tiered food licensing structure recently approved by the city.

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Fargo Cass Public Health will move away from the one-size-fits-all system of twice-yearly inspections for food-related businesses to a risk-based structure, where some will be inspected more often and some less often.

Starting Jan. 1, businesses will be designated as a 1, 2 or 3 on the food tier and licensed and inspected accordingly.

Environmental health director Grant Larson said tier 1 businesses, including some coffee shops and convenience stores that simply heat food in a microwave, will be inspected a minimum of once a year.

Tier 2 businesses-a sub shop, for example-will see a minimum of two inspections.

Tier 3 establishments include full-service restaurants that are cooking raw meats and having to heat and cool foods to certain temperatures in a timely manner. They also include those serving a highly susceptible or group-setting population, like hospitals, nursing homes and the county jail. Inspectors will stop in to those places at least three times a year.

"It makes the most sense, based on science," Larson said.

Inspectors already use a risk-based model in deciding how often to check food-service operations in Moorhead and Clay County. Under Minnesota law, each establishment must be inspected at least once every 12, 18 or 24 months, depending on whether the facility is categorized as high-risk, medium-risk or low-risk.

Larson said the new licensing structure in Fargo and Cass County is based on "inherent risk," but that doesn't mean eating at a tier 3 food establishment is risky.

"It's just saying the complexity of their food operation is what drives the tier," Larson said. "It's based on the type of food and the processes."

The change comes on recommendation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, through the North Dakota Department of Health, with an aim of reducing the number of foodborne illnesses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says approximately 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year.

Larson said letters were sent out recently to approximately 850 food establishments in Fargo and West Fargo listing the new tier definitions and fees. Some fees will go up, others might go down.

Mary Rustad, who oversees dining services at Bethany Retirement Living on South University Drive, said she's known about the new licensing structure for almost a year now, and it doesn't mean any real change for her operation.

"We're well aware we serve a vulnerable population," Rustad said. "We're used to having people come in and look at our practices."

Keng Dechawuth, who owns and operates several restaurants in the region, including Wasabi Sushi and Asian Grill in downtown Fargo, is also already accustomed to more frequent inspections.

Dechawuth said he has no problem with the new categories as long as people understand why sushi and other restaurants are on a different risk scale.

"We don't want to misguide customers and say Wasabi's not safe," Dechawuth said. "Those that cook fresh and prepare fresh get checked more often."

Larson said they're not singling out sushi places. Other processes will see more scrutiny, such as a business that smokes meats and vacuum seals them, and a business that makes huge volumes of soup, whose employees have to know how to cool it properly and serve it throughout the week.

Fargo Cass Public Health employs seven full-time environmental health inspectors and a part-timer, who license and inspect businesses that deal in food, body art, child care, swimming pools, tanning beds and other regulated industries.

Larson said no additional inspectors will be needed to implement the new health licensing structure.