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Stupid rules or modern food standards?

15.feb.06, Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

15.feb.06, Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Stupid rules or modern food standards?
February 15, 2006
Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Brae Surgeoner
Are the food police aiming to shut down fundraisers and church dinners?
Apparently not in Alberta, where last week, after numerous complaints, the provincial cabinet approved new regulations that would see health inspectors relax requirements on community organized food events.
Effective April 1, event organizers no longer need a health permit or formal food-handling education. Sean Beardow, Alberta Health spokesman, stated health authorities didn’t want to unduly restrict community organized food events, and marveled, “Do we need the same food preparation training at a restaurant that serves 300 tables a night versus someone who is doing a pancake breakfast?”
A delicate question and one that even I, a self-professed food safety geek, had to go back to reading my novel, Paulo Coelho’s, The Alchemist, to mull over.
Only then did I realize why I was having problems devising a diplomatic answer to Beardow’s question; because -- in the words of Coelho – “like everyone else, I see the world in terms of what I would like to see happen, not what actually does.”
I would like for these groups not to have to take on the extra burdens related to food safety; I would like to believe that outbreaks of foodborne illness do not occur when people are volunteering their time to raise funds for community or charitable causes. But nasty bugs don't distinguish between commercial and charitable food operations.
On September 24, 2005, at least 50 people, including several members of the volunteer organization, fell ill after eating a barbeque chicken dinner hosted by a volunteer community organization in rural Nova Scotia. The outbreak investigation revealed that well-intentioned organizers had erred when preparing the potato salad. Sloppy food handling and a lack of timely refrigeration at a safe temperature provided the ideal conditions for Staphylococcus aureus intoxication. Community volunteers at the event were so shaken up that they requested therapeutic debriefing and counseling.
Unfortunately this outbreak is not unique.
In September 2004, near Buffalo, New York, 28 confirmed cases of Salmonella infection were reported to the Erie County Department of Health following an annual community roast-beef dinner. Outbreak investigators found that volunteers were not trained in foodservice and “didn’t quite understand the importance of maintaining a hot or cold temperature.”
Turns out they really did not understand at all.
The beef was roasted on spits and the juices, collecting in a 5-gallon bucket at room temperature over the course of the day, was poured over the surface of ready-to-eat beef sandwiches. Scrumptious. Except that the sandwiches were being drenched with both flavorful juices and Salmonella bacteria that had multiplied throughout the day at room temperature. Interviews with attendees indicated that approximately 1,500 of the 3,000 who attended the event were ill.
These outbreaks are unique in that enough people actually reported that they were sick. Most cases of foodborne illness goes unreported and as a result, many people have no idea how common an occurrence it is. Some one-in-four North Americans get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year.
Following the outbreak in N.S., freelance writer, Kathleen Winter, wrote to the Telegram (St. John’s, Newfoundland) that she knew someone who wouldn’t eat anything at a potluck except the dish she brought herself. Winter was quoted as saying, “she’s not me, but I think she's less insane the older I get.”
I agree.
Potluck dinners, where food is prepared behind the closed doors of private homes and church kitchens, can be hazardous. Unlike a restaurant kitchen, there’s little control over how the food was prepared, stored handled or transported.
In Ontario, churches, service clubs and fraternal organizations that prepare and serve meals for special events (or host bake sales) for their members and personally invited guests are exempt from the Food Premises Regulations, as authorized by the Health Act. However, if the event is publicly advertised, rules apply.
When it comes to preventing foodborne illness, local health departments have a responsibility to check out public food events and, while each department may have their own interpretation of the regulations, they do not seem to be out to police and shut down community food events. Instead they appear unified in ensuring that food handlers have the best available information to keep food safe, while providing the community with an enjoyable meal.
As Diana Alegra, Hospitality Committee, Grace Church, Cobourg Ontario, wrote in a letter to the editor of her local newspaper, “It is time, dear people, for people in churches (any organization) who are responsible for organizing functions in which food is served to begin to update and move forward to meet modern standards.”
Brae Surgeoner is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.