It's natural to feel a certain sadness when summer ends and the calendar is no longer packed with festivals, fairs and fetes.
You will forgive the inspectors of the Erie County Health Department if they breathe a sign of relief as the weather cools and the weekend calendars clear.
That’s because in addition to the 4,000 or so permanent restaurants in the county, the same group of 20 inspectors and six district supervisors in the department's Environmental Health Services section must inspect and document the cleanliness and healthful status of some 1,250 temporary food stands at the events that pack Western New York’s summer calendar.
“The summer months are a very, very busy time for food facility inspections because of all the temporary food facilities that are set up,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, County Health Commissioner. “We need to ensure that no matter where Erie County residents eat, that it is safe.”
While occasional cases of tainted food draw attention, such as the illness outbreaks linked with Chipotle and Mighty Taco, the county health department works with people who operate restaurants, food trucks and even food stands to prevent illness caused by contamination, undercooking or incorrect storage of food.
So whether you are eating mac and cheese at the Taste of Buffalo, sausage and peppers at the Italian Festival, or deep-fried gummy bears at the Erie County Fair, you can be sure that the stand and its operators have been checked out by Health Department inspectors.
Not every stand is inspected every time it opens. “If the same place goes into more than one venue, you might not have to go back and re-inspect it,” said Dolores Funke, environmental health director at the Department of Health.
Less attention is paid to types of food that are not usually hazardous, such as popcorn, coffee or roasted nuts, said Mark Kowalski, the deputy director of environmental health. “Also, some of these are one-day or one-afternoon events, like a Boy Scout hot dog sale.”
Having said that, Kowalski quickly adds that any food or drink can become contaminated by poor storage, and that his department will respond to complaints at 961-6800 or on the department's web site.
But for a large multi-day event like the National Buffalo Wing Festival, which drew some 70,000 people to its 15th annual celebration over Labor Day weekend, inspectors fanned out before and during the cooking and serving process. They checked everything from the cold storage of wings before they were cooked, to the 36 deep fryers bubbling away under the large cooking tent, to the stands where the wings were held hot, sauced and served to hungry customers.
“At an event like this that gets bigger every year, they continue to fine-tune it,” said Inspector Daniel Thibodeau, who carried a clipboard and a thermometer as he walked through the cooking tent. “The first few years of a new event, they are still working things out.”
“These guys are like a Swiss watch here,” said supervisory sanitarian Steve Wojtulski as he watched the workers. “Nothing sits in one place for too long.”
The inspectors were greeted on the grounds by Rob Free, director of food service for the Bisons, and Steve Marquart, an event organizer who works for “Wing King” Drew Cerza. Free and Marquart urged the inspectors to let them know if they needed anything, including a quiet spot to work on their paperwork after visiting the cooking and serving sites.
That cordial and professional relationship is normal, said Kowalski. “It’s very businesslike,” he said. “They expect us.”
Kowalski is sympathetic to the many pressures on restaurateurs. “For all the things this operator and his employees have to do in a day, we are coming with a focus on sanitary issues,” he said. “He still has to have enough cheese, he has to have a cash box, he has to have food ordered, he has to have enough cups, he has a large pie chart of stuff. But we are focusing on these items and when we are done and we hand him that satisfactory inspection, it’s not a guarantee that there won’t be a problem in 10 minutes, but when we pass through these points, statistically we don’t have an outbreak of illness later on.”
While inspections of temporary food stands can be demanding and complicated, they are not difficult. To help food stand operators, some of whom may sell food at only a few festivals a year, the health department has drawn up a list of 25 guidelines spelling out in plain language what is required, from a fire extinguisher to hand-washing facilities.
“Temporary stands have this unique condition: they were just put together, so they don’t have any build-up anywhere,” said Kowalski. “They are not sterile. We hold to a standard of clean, which is no visible dirt or contamination.”
A key starting question is “Does everything look right?” said Kowalski. From the food to the stand to the workers, who should wear hair restraints and clean clothing, things must look tidy.
The official inspection form, produced by the state Department of Health, lists 12 critical items, printed in red to emphasize their importance, followed by 10 more sanitation and maintenance issues.
The critical violations directly affect food safety, said Kowalski. Food can be hazardous because it is from an unapproved source, such as a home-canned item, or because it has been held too long after cooking or chilling and fell below or rose above a safe temperature for too long.
“We want a chicken wing cooked to 165 degrees, then we want it hot held to 140,” he said. “If it drops below 140, it doesn’t go right into the garbage, because we understand that there is a period of time where the food didn’t instantly turn contaminated, so if we are there and the food is below 140, we start to challenge and collect and verify how long it was below 140. That’s the investigative part.”
“This is our document to notify an individual that they are not complying,” said Kowalski. “The form helps to guide everyone who looks at it – my inspector, to make sure the criticial points are being looked at, and the operator, who gets a document to emphasize what is important.”
Once the operator has the form, he or she knows what needs to be changed. “Nobody can correct something if you don’t tell them what’s wrong,” said Kowalski. “We don’t tell somebody how to comply, because there may be multiple ways to comply, but we do tell them what standard is not being met or what we have seen in other operations that complied.”
A critical violation at a temporary food stand or a restaurant must be fixed while the inspector is present, and both the violation and fact that it has been corrected will be noted on the inspection. "We see that it is corrected while we are there or the operation ceases," said Kowalski. "Having said that, our goal is not to put people out of business; that's not the first handle we grab."
“We trust that they will do the right things, but we are paid by the community to verify it,” said Kowalski. “Trust, but verify.”