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Health Department rules can make an event organizer sick


There is a good reason you don’t remember the year that people got really sick after patronizing the Winterfest Chili Cook-Off in Canton. The reason is there has never been such a year.

Well, I don’t actually know that. They did sell cheap beer at the event each year, so I suppose it is possible that someone tipped a few too many and went home to have a heart-to-heart discussion with his commode. But there has been no evidence of illness from eating the food that was served during the contest.

Not an inkling of a problem in in 17 years. No mention of E. coli or salmonella. No spawning of hepatitis or the Tex-Mex flu. No lawsuits. Nothing. It was the proverbial fun-was-had-by-all event that also raised a little bit of money for the Canton Chamber of Commerce.

The streak is ending this year because the state Health Department said the Chamber has to take a bunch of steps to make sure nobody gets sick from sampling the chili during the contest. Note that figuring out all the steps is not as easy as it sounds. You would think that one phone call to the Health Department and they would happily outline what a group needs to do to comply with its food service regulations. And you would be wrong.

It took reporter Beth Graham three phone calls to get someone to talk to her about this. When she finally hit pay dirt, the Health Department’s public relations goof in Albany told her this: “It’s all in the law and I am not going to go through it with you.”

If you have never read a law, I’ll tell you that they are written by lawyers for the reading pleasure of lawyers. For instance, this is how the law tells you that you must use clean dishes and such: “A person or corporation engaged in the preparation and sale of food in any hotel, public restaurant, public dining room, dining car, drug store, soda fountain, steamboat or in any other place where food is prepared, sold or served for and to the general public in this state, or an officer of any public, penal or charitable institution in this state, shall not use in the preparation or service of any food utensils, dishes, glasses or other containers which have not been previously cleansed and made sanitary.”

Needless to say, I didn’t sift through the other 30 pages or so of this law to try and figure out what the Chamber might have to do to be in compliance with it. And neither did the Chamber. When the Health Department decided the Winterfest Chili Cook-Off wasn’t broke and therefore needed to be fixed, the Chamber simply said, “We’ll pass.”

Health Department people are fond of saying they aren’t shutting down events. Event organizers are fond of saying the Health Department makes it impossible to have an event. I am siding with the organizers. If someone points a gun at me and I DECIDE to give them my wallet, I still got robbed.

The Chamber decided to cancel the event rather than take the steps to make sure that nobody got sick at an event that nobody has ever gotten sick at before. It was their decision, but the Health Department was holding the gun.

The Elks Club in Ogdensburg recently took the same approach as the Chamber and canceled its chili cook-off. Traditional Arts in Upstate New York a couple of years ago canceled its pea soup and johnnycake lunch after the Health Department put the fear of government into them. And the Canton United Methodist Church in 2009 canceled its Lenten lunches before the Health Department told them that churches don’t have to worry about food safety.

Everyone who had to read that last sentence twice to make sure it said what you thought it said: It said what you thought it said. The rules that the Chamber and the Elks and TAUNY have to follow do not apply to churches. Sort of. Apparently, the Health Department figures God will keep everyone safe from food-borne illness without government interference – but only once a week. If a church wants to have TWO Lenten luncheons in a week, it becomes subject to Health Department rules and regulations. Talk about losing your faith.

For 17 years the Health Department was very consistent in its enforcement of this law. They didn’t bother the Winterfest Chili Cook-Off folks and no one suffered for it. People ate chili. The Chamber made a few bucks that it donated each year to the Canton Fire Department. Everyone was happy. No one got sick.

Those were good days to remember.

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