Food inspectors will be shorthanded at fairsby Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — With so much public scrutiny focused on food safety these days, fairgoers might assume that their local fair vendor has been thoroughly vetted before being allowed to serve burgers, eggs and other potentially risky food items to the public.
But that will not be the case at small fairs and festivals that occur during the government shutdown. Minnesota Department of Health officials say because of the shutdown they don't have enough staff to inspect every festival.
With fewer than 20 percent of its food inspectors on duty, the department will focus its inspection work on the events with the greatest attendance. Inspectors will only go to fairs and festivals that are expected to draw 10,000 people or more, said Health Department spokesman John Stieger.
State food safety inspectors will visit food vendors at all the big festivals and fairs, including Moondance Jam in Walker next week and WE Fest in Detroit Lakes in early August.
"We'd actually be able to get out to those events with the staffing that we have," Stieger said. "So that's basically how we arrived at that number."
That decision comes as quite a surprise to Jamie Hauge, who manages the small community center kitchen at the Cass County Fair in Pillager. She was expecting a visit from a state health inspector this week.
The kitchen offers a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu to the estimated 2,500 people who attend the fair, which opened Wednesday and runs through Sunday.
While Hauge is surprised by the Health Department's decision to skip her fair, she doesn't think it's a reason for anyone to worry about the safety of her food.
"It doesn't bother me a bit, because I know I keep a spotless kitchen and everything is in order all of the time," Hauge said.
The Health Department doesn't have an estimate of how many fairs and festivals its inspectors could skip if the government shutdown continues for another few weeks. But the agency has determined that at least 29 county fairs are large enough to qualify for inspection between now and August 7.
In addition to those events, there could be many others that will be inspected by local jurisdictions. More than 50 counties and cities have partial or full responsibility for their food inspections.
That's the case in Winona County. Cindy Timm, president of the Winona County Fair, said food inspections are not an issue at her fair, which runs through Sunday. Still, the shutdown has caused some confusion about the status of the fair.
"We've had lots of calls from people, [asking] 'Are you open?' or 'Should we buy carnival tickets?'" Timm said. "Because the rumors are around that the carnival isn't going to be open. So that's kind of caused us a little concern."
The state's biggest summer get-together, the Minnesota State Fair, kicks off in seven weeks. General Manager Jerry Hammer has assurance from the Health Department that every state fair food vendor will be inspected if the shutdown continues through August.
And as far as he knows, every food vendor has already received their operating license from the agency.
"There may be the case of a new exhibitor or two that would come up between now and fair time on the food side, that would need to get licensed," Hammer said. "But at this point everybody has their licenses."
What's unclear is the fate of the Department of Natural Resources fish exhibit and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Eco Exhibit. Hammer said much of the planning work for those exhibits has been completed. But he doesn't know what will happen if the shutdown continues longer.
- Morning Edition, 07/08/2011, 6:45 a.m.