Taste of Chicago: Inspections not enough, get food from safe sources

Deborah Shelton of the Chicago Tribune gave me a call Friday morning before spending the day with a food inspector at the annual Taste of Chicago event, expected to draw some six million people.

Last year, some 800 visitors to the Taste were sickened with Salmonella, traced to hummus served at the Pars Cove Persian Cuisine booth. It may have been the sesame seeds, or tomatoes, in the hummus; it may have been a hand hygiene issue.

"Handwashing, avoiding cross-contamination and monitoring food temperatures are important efforts, but for a lot of foodborne illness, these aren’t enough," said Doug Powell, scientific director of the International Food Safety Network based at Kansas State University. "What people are missing is that many of these outbreaks are caused by foods contaminated at their source."

Last year, I said the Chicago Department of Public Health engaged in “a breathtaking example of doublespeak,” and “what is possibly the biggest piece of PR puffery I’ve ever seen” as the Department insisted:

"The Pars Cove situation represents the first confirmed outbreak of illness associated with the event in at least 20 years. In the larger context of having safely served tens of millions of people in recent years, the Taste remains quite possibly the safest food service operation in the city."

The sick people were probably interested to know they were a statistical anomaly.

But it continues.

Dr. Terry Mason, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said yesterday,

"The Taste of Chicago is the most highly regulated, tightly scrutinized event in the city, perhaps even in the nation."

Mason said food inspections will take place at booths four times a day to ensure the public’s safety.

"One case of illness is one case too many, but the fact remains that no other major outdoor food event in the nation has a better track record of safety than this one.”

Show me the data. Or show the data to the 800 sick people from last year. And, Dr. Mason, you can inspect 20 times a day; until you have a plan to verify that raw ingredients are coming from safe – or at least microbiologically aware — sources, your Taste is a vulnerable to foodborne illnesss as any other eating event.

Sure, asking questions is hard. But public health inspectors are ideally suited to ask those hard questions. Restaurants that want to avoid Bill Marler need to be able to answer those questions.