Food-o-File

Health Department cracks down on temporary food-service establishments

Over the past year I've heard from several people about their interactions with inspectors from the Austin/Travis County Health & Human Services Department. A few of the people who wrote were event planners or local food artisans, which was understandable, but what made me realize there was a column in the making was that some of the others were grocery store and farmers' market shoppers, members of church congregations, and even gallery owners. Some people contacted me about what they perceived to be an injustice at the hand of inspectors, but the gist of most of the correspondence was that people are aware of greater permit regulation enforcement efforts on the part of the Health Depart­ment and were curious about why this is happening now. So I had a conversation with Shannon Jones, assistant director of public health, to discuss this issue. We discussed the tremendous growth in the local food industry in recent years and the overall increase in the number of public events that include some kind of food service. (The department did 1,000 inspections of public events offering food in 2005 and 1,119 inspections in 2007.) Jones said that inspecting the safety and cleanliness of all food-service establishments and guarding the public against food-borne illness have always been the department's mandate. They do this primarily by issuing permits for food preparation locations, inspecting those locations on a regular basis, responding to complaints from the public, and doing research about events where food is being offered to the public, so they can check to make sure that necessary permits are in place. That last component is where most of my recent correspondents have gotten hung up – folks who wanted to know why their nonprofit benefit, annual church barbecue fundraiser, art show opening, or customer appreciation day party with refreshments suddenly needed a temporary food-service permit after operating safely and successfully without one, sometimes for years. Said Jones: "Public events that serve food have always required a temporary food-service permit and inspections, even if they've operated under the radar successfully for years without one. Once we know about the event, we are obligated to contact the organizers and educate them about the need for temporary permits and inspections." Jones also made the distinctions very clear – private events at your home, church, or place of business that serve food to your family and guests, congregation, or employees, are your own business and do not require a permit. Any event where open, unpackaged food will be given or sold to the general public does require a temporary food-service permit or proof of an existing permit. If there are multiple vendors serving food, each will need a permit or proof thereof. This is necessary to help the Health Department determine the source of any food-borne illness, should one arise. Permit fees vary depending on the number of days the event runs and should be built into the event budget during the planning stages to avoid unexpected last-minute costs. Jones shared another crucial piece of information: Health Department employees do research event calendars, articles, and advertisements in local print and online publications for notices about food products and events where food will be offered. This is simply a word to the wise – if you're sending out advertisements or public service announcements about a food-related event or giving interviews about the availability of a food product, it is a good idea to make sure your permits are in order first. Contact Sabrina Vidaurri, temporary event coordinator, at 972-5671, if you have questions about temporary food-service permit requirements or need an application.

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