Health crackdown may mean end to potlucks

  • Jul. 5, 2006 7:00 a.m.

By Heather Ramsay–“Come hell or high water,” a local food vendor will have her goodies at the music festival in Tlell this weekend, despite a recent crackdown on food vendors and community potlucks by Northern Health.
Sheila Wigmore, who serves up a variety of cakes, coffees and teas each year at the festival, says she only found out a week ago the requirements for food vendors were different this year. As of press time, she had been trying to communicate clearly with the new environmental health officer.
Since August, Prince Rupert-based Pearly Yip, has been on the look out for community events. Her job, with the Northern Health protection office, is to ensure temporary food vendors are following the guidelines for food service premises.
So far, Ms Yip has only been made aware of the Edge of the World Music Festival, but she says she has also been busy with Prince Rupert events such as Seafest, Canada Day and the All-Native Basketball tournament.
The guidelines for temporary food service premises have been in place for some time, but with the office short of staff until recetnly, Ms Yip says no one had been following up with local organizers.
Some of the requirements for vendors at the music festival this weekend include having a separate sink with warm running water, liquid soap and paper towels for washing hands. They also need a wash, rinse, sanitize system for dishes.
If food is prepared before being brought to the site, it must be done in a certified kitchen, not in private homes.
“Home kitchens do not meet the requirements,” Ms Yip said. She also says her office cannot monitor people’s homes and, for example, pets may have fecal contamination on their bodies.
Ms Wigmore, who keeps her cheesecakes on ice blankets says, “The whole thing is kind of bizarre, I think. I’ve never had a problem with someone getting sick or complaining.”
She said a health inspector visited the festival last year and told her everything was fine.
Furthermore, Ms Wigmore says she has received conflicting information from the environmental health officer each time she has called. “Sounds to me as if she’s from the city and not sure how things are done in the north,” Ms Wigmore said.
Nevertheless, she has made arrangements to do her baking in a certified kitchen this year and she is doing a Food Safe course on-line.
Elsewhere across the north, community organizers have been put under the regulatory broiler. In Fort St. James, the local environmental health officer called into question a 15-year tradition of holding a community potluck on Canada Day.
Mayor Rob MacDougall said the town had to change the plan to make it work within the guidelines by preparing hams and turkeys in the hall’s approved kitchen and asking people to take their home-made goodies to their own tables rather than have them out buffet style. They now call the event an ethnic picnic.
Colin Merc, the environmental health officer based in Terrace says there is no big campaign in the north, but more and more community event issues have been coming up in the last couple of years.
He says there have been food-borne illness outbreaks tied to these kind of events.
The regulations are primarily in place for potentially hazardous foods, such as those that contain meat, eggs, and dairy products like cream-filled pastries. Cookies and breads are not considered dangerous to public health.
Pat Carrie Smith, director of the Edge of the World Festival, said the rules are not new to the festival. Vendors had to have the temporary food serving permits last year. This year festival is requiring vendors to have a Food Safe certificate as well.
She says the new requirements may have discouraged some people from applying, but the festival will have nine food vendors preparing a variety of eats for music lovers.
In Queen Charlotte this year, Hospital Day organizers also informed food vendors they needed a temporary permit.
Ms Yip says it is relatively easy for a vendor to meet the requirements and her job is to help people figure out how to do so. She has the power to close down a vendor who is operating without a permit, she says. She is hoping to be at the Edge of the World Festival this weekend, but didn’t have definite plans by our press deadline on Tuesday.