Exempting food events might make political sense; may not be good for public health

When it comes to social issues I’m a bit of a libertarian hippie. I’ve looked the part (big bushy beard and longer thinning hair); used to play ultimate frisbee (poorly); and, our first-born was delivered at home.

The philosophy I’ve embraced around food safety is, let people eat what and where they want. The caveat, and challenge to extension and public health folks, is that eaters should have all the tools available to them to make risk-based decisions. Disclose the risk, have a compelling discussion about consequences and best practices and stand back – hopefully the choice results in the least amount of barf. images

Depending on the jurisdiction, the oversight over commercial food businesses and community-building fundraisers creates a two-tiered system: Professionals have the advantage of a set of regulatory standards and an environmental health specialist pointing out risks; amateurs are unregulated and left to their own devices.

According to the Topeka Capitol-Journal, Kansas legislators are looking to create a tiered system by exempting religious non-profit organizations from following food safety rules.

“Some of these churches have regular food sales just to keep the lights on,” [Rep. John] Alcala, [D-Topeka] said.

One such church meets in North Topeka. As of October, Sullivan Chapel Methodist Church had three regular attendees — all from one family — but the congregation’s monthly taco sales kept utilities paid.

Until, that is, a Kansas Department of Health and Environment employee stumbled upon the sale in 2012 and suggested the church needed several food safety improvements to stay in business.

Alcala’s bill would clarify that the taco sales, and other larger scale church-related meals, are exempt.

The need for the law was debated before it reached the House floor.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture, the agency actually in charge of commercial food safety said it doesn’t regularly license or inspect the religious organizations affected anyway. KDHE handles outbreaks of food-borne illness, which the bill doesn’t address.

Cindy Martin, one of the remaining Sullivan Chapel Methodist Church members, said she and her family were unaware of the bill, but had been told they couldn’t sell tacos because they didn’t have a food vendor’s license. 

Anyone working with food (whether in a business or a community dinner) should have some knowledge of risk as it relates to what they’re making –  and how to manage it. Exempting these organization should carry a big risk disclosure message for patrons: These folks making your tacos aren’t professionals, don’t have the benefit of inspector visits and don’t have a standard. Eat at your own risk.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.