Food safety at fairs and festivals

Tanya Banuelos of the Argus Observer writes:

As the last few weeks of summer vacation dwindle down and families are taking advantage of outdoor food at barbecues, picnics and the county fair, it’s time to talk about warm weather and food safety.
With 100-degree weather expected this week, it’s important to remember how much sooner food can become perishable when it’s out in the heat.
When it comes to food safety, food handlers at the Malheur County Fair must adhere to health guidelines, and an inspector is on site throughout the week. And as with every year at the fair, for those who sell consumable goods, food safety is a priority for vendors, such as Awesome Blossom and Fiesta Guadalajara.
Rely on equipment
One of the key details to remember is the importance of temperature.
Modesto Vega, co-owner of Fiesta Guadalajara, said he is able to keep foods at the appropriate temperature during the fair with commercial equipment.

I have inspected my fair share of temporary events including festivals and fairs and not all vendors are equipped with commercial fridges, freezers, etc. If you got them, all the power to you. I would typically see a lot of residential equipment, some good and some bad. As long as cold/hot holding temperatures are maintained, I’m good.

There have been a myriad of outbreaks associated with outdoor events nationally and internationally. The ethnic nature and diversity of foods prepared coupled with extreme temperatures pose unique problems for public health types. Public health inspections of said facilities rarely assess behavioral practices; rather, they are focused on meeting Regulatory standards. Time commitment and lack of public health staff have a lot to do with this, I have experienced this personally.

Effective food safety training during these events is critical. A number of operators at fairs and festivals are typically required to take a mandatory 8- hour food safe course or variation thereof prior to the event. I would rather see on-site hands-on training during vendor set-up focusing specifically on their menu items to ensure food safety, a mini HACCP if you will. If a vendor intends on serving hamburgers, well let’s go over what you need to do to ensure that no one barfs from your hamburgers.

Therman Collins, who has been a food vendor at the fair for eight years, said the key to keeping food safe for consumption is to make it fresh and send it right on out, adding that when it comes to food safety, “we know it all.”
Time, temperature equally important
When food is already cooked, especially with warm temperatures, how long people keep their food outside is a cause for concern, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Most picnic foods will only be safe on the table for two hours; however, if the air temperature is higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit, then the food is only safe for an hour.
Most importantly, food should be kept out of the danger zone, where cold foods are recommended to be kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and hot foods above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Food safety at temporary events and festivals costs money

We use festivals as great weekend diversions for the kids. Every week I check out the local events schedule and take the boys anywhere that’s got cool stuff to see or do (including bouncy houses, simulated toboggan hills or bug displays). Usually there are fundraiser booths with burgers or bbq sandwiches.

Sometimes they are run by professional folks. Other times it is a cadre of well-meaning amateur food handlers.______2632069_orig

A couple of years back some public health folks got in political trouble for tossing away a bunch of problematic high risk sandwiches at a Windsor, Ontario fundraiser. The organizers claimed foul about the public health folks were doing their job – keeping unsafe food off of plates. Politicians jumped in and turned it into a circus about regulating ‘blue-haired grandmas‘.

What was lost in all the rhetoric was that good jurisdictions have food safety standards for all food being sold, regardless of where the funds to to, and that health authorities have a duty to ensure that the rules are being followed.

And that costs money.

According to Holly Meyer of the Post-Crescent Media , between $7500 and $10k are spent annually by the Appleton (Wisconsin) Health Department on temporary events and festivals. 

The Appleton Health Department uses permits, training and inspections to ensure food stands are operating properly, said Kurt Eggebrecht, the department’s health officer. Those efforts cost both the vendors and the taxpayers thousands of dollars every fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.

The food stand owners, like those who have to set up at the weekly Downtown Appleton Farm Market or annual Octoberfest, must apply for permits.

From July 1-31, the health department issued 83 permits, taking in $4,378. Eggebrecht said those numbers will jump in a couple of months because of Octoberfest.

The costs vary by permit, with nonprofit stands paying $30, temporary restaurants paying $123 and traveling retail stands paying $68.

The health department’s environmental staff also conducts inspections at the stands and spends time consulting and training with the vendors, Eggebrecht said. The department pays for the staff hours to perform the duties. They spent $10,406 in 2012-13, $7,480 in 2013-14 and $990 so far this year. (The totals exclude administrative, vehicle and fuel costs.)

Being a good community steward and passionate individual doesn’t make someone good at food safety. Investing resources into standards, verification and coaching certainly can help.

Paying attention to risks at food festivals

I like rock and roll. I like ribs. Rock ‘n Ribs in Campbell Springfield, MO seems like a pretty great place to get your fingers sticky and listen to cover bands play songs from Sticky Fingers. Spring signifies the start of festival season, when tourism dollars pump into towns; the local kids will drink underage; and, hopefully no one gets sick from foodborne illness.

Festivals and temporary events have had their share of outbreaks in the past (Taste of Chicago in 2007, Folklorama in 2010 and numerous fundraisers and community dinners). Often there are folks at booths who are not full-time food handlers, dealing with lineups, makeshift heat sources and poor access to handwashing facilities.

These events need to have someone who is paying attention, inviting the health inspectors in to point out potential issues and have lots of portable restrooms/handwashing stations available for vendors and patrons.

As I told the venerable Portable Restroom Operator, the type of festival I want to go to as a patron is a place that doesn’t need to be regulated. They welcome inspectors as a second set of eyes but they should already have the mindset of ‘making 700 people sick would be bad for our festival’.

Rock ‘n Ribs sounds like they are paying attention.

In Ozarks First, Mike Brother of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department was cited as saying,  "We’re asking them to police themselves to work with the people doing the sampling to keep proper hygiene wash their hands and wear gloves."

"These kind of events these sampling events we can’t bring an inspector out to inspect all 50 or 60 or 100 of the booths out here giving samples," said Brothers.

Jim McLeod of Southwest Rotary says they’ve been in the competition for 12 years and always make sure they’re handing out safe food.
"Every time we get into the food we’ll wear gloves when we touch it we got the restaurant inspector out here just like anywhere else and we’re doing the same thing as restaurants," said McLeod.

Long live rock and roll. And ribs.

New International Food Safety Network Infosheet — Food safety at festivals and fairs

It’s fair and festival season.  For the past 25 years, the last weekend of July has marked the Hillside Festival, a weekend-long outdoors concert at Guelph Lake.  I’ve never been.  I’ve had lots of friends attend and have often felt like I’ve missed out on hearing some great bands.  Part of the reason is that I’m not a huge camping fan; it always seems to rain when I camp.  And then I whine to whomever I’m camping with.

Prior to an ultimate frisbee game on Monday night, I was warming up with a friend who attended this year’s installment of Hillside.  As we jogged she told me all about the weekend: The bands were great, but the best part of the weekend was the food.  She described a set-up where many local restaurants have temporary booths and were serving up selections of their normal menus to the hungry concert-goers. 

This conversation made me think about last year’s Salmonella outbreak linked to the Taste of Chicago.  Temporary kitchens can be problematic for the staff who work in them when it comes to controlling food safety risks.  Equipment may not be readily available, line-ups add to the time pressure, spaces can be cramped and handwashing sinks might be hard to access (or even find).

Coupling my conversation with a link that Doug came across about fair food safety in Wisconsin led to today’s infosheet, which can be downloaded here.

After the infosheet was created, Doug sent on another link about a Shigella outbreak in Oregon — which has been linked to visiting the Oregon County fair.  Depending on the information that follows in the upcoming days, maybe next week’s infosheet with focus on that outbreak.