The Northern Health Authority has received more calls about its policies on community potlucks than any other issue, says chief medical health officer Dr. David Bowering.
“It definitely struck a chord,” Dr. Bowering told the Observer this week. “And the reaction was to a position we really didn’t have.”
Dr. Bowering sent letters to every municipality in the north this month attempting to clarify Northern Health’s approach to public events involving food.
If a municipality organizes an event where food is offered to the public, it has an obligation to take steps to ensure the food is safe to eat, Dr. Bowering said. It’s in the municipality’s own interest to do so, he said, because it is possible for people who get food poisoning to sue the municipality.
The Northern Health Authority could strictly enforce regulations around public events, for example requiring any event where food is served to have a food permit, Dr. Bowering said. But the NHA doesn’t want to take that approach. Instead, it’s hoping that municipalities and other public groups will call up and talk to environmental health officers about how to serve food as safely as possible.
“We’re not highly legalistic,” he said. “We want to encourage people to touch base first” before organizing events. “What we’re asking for is some collaboration.”
Some foods, like most baked goods, are not a problem. Other foods, like potato salad, hamburger meat, and chili, are particularly prone to causing food-borne illness, according to Northern Health.
And food-borne illness is a lot more common than one might think, Dr. Bowering said. There were cases in Vanderhoof recently, caused by food served at a small church potluck. And in Fort St. John, seven or eight firefighters were treated for food poisoning after eating sandwiches which had been at room temperature all day.
Dr. Bowering, who lived on the Charlottes between 1974 and 1985 and comes back for a holiday every year, said he understands the importance of food in northern culture.
“We are not seeking to shut down every potluck, dinner or food stand,” his letter reads. “We just don’t want people to get sick from food poisoning, which is preventable. We are committed to working with community groups to help ensure that they can hold community events safely.”
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