Question of the Week

May 23, 2005


How often do you eat food that you did not prepare yourself? Meals sold in restaurants, delis, and grocery stores are regulated to help keep the consumer safer. What about the food sold at the school bake sale? The food brought to the Memorial Day potluck? The snacks and drinks served at a friend's party?

"Every state has the authority to regulate food marketing activities, such as the sale and preparation of food, in order to protect public health and safety. Recently, questions have been raised whether this regulatory authority should be extended to community food events. The concern for local governments is the incidence of food-borne disease -- more commonly referred to as 'food poisonings.'"

If an outbreak is big enough, it will often make the local news. Most cases of foodborne illness do not make news, and many people do not know how common it is.

"More than 250 foodborne diseases have been described. Symptoms vary widely depending on etiologic agent. Diarrhea and vomiting are the most common. ... Estimated to cause 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,200 deaths in the United States each year. Known pathogens account for an estimated 14 million illnesses, 60,000 hospitalizations, and 1,800 deaths annually."

So, when does a reported illness become an outbreak?

"An outbreak of foodborne illness occurs when a group of people consume the same contaminated food and two or more of them come down with the same illness. ... Often, a combination of events contributes to the outbreak. A contaminated food may be left out a room temperature for many hours, allowing the bacteria to multiply to high numbers, and then be insufficiently cooked to kill the bacteria. ... Many outbreaks are local in nature. They are recognized when a group of people realize that they all became ill after a common meal, and someone calls the local health department. This classic local outbreak might follow a catered meal at a reception, a pot-luck supper, or eating a meal at an understaffed restaurant on a particularly busy day."

The "catered meal at a reception" and the "understaffed restaurant" are both subject to health codes and regulations. The "pot-luck supper" is not. While potlucks are not regulated to the same extent as restaurants, different areas have their own rules and regulations that do apply.

If the potluck is in parts of Arizona:

"Potlucks in private homes, churches and offices are not regulated by Community Health Services. ... Any food service which is open to the general public fall under our [Community Health Services] regulations. Because Health Codes prohibit serving food to the public which is not produced in a licensed commercial kitchen, the use of homemade foods at a potluck held in a public facility is not allowed."
Yavapai County Health Department: Community Health Services

When the issue came up in one county in Washington state:

"[I]t was decided that a potluck is an assumed risk and usually is confined to a specific group who are accepting the risk. It is different if the event is advertised to the public and they may be expected to pay. The public expects the food to be safe."

And after concerns that potlucks would be regulated to the point of extinction, the issue reached the state level in Illinois:

"Thanks to legislation introduced by Illinois State Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Pontiac, the health department raid on the church has been canceled. ... It was a statewide fear of losing time-honored potlucks that led Rutherford to propose S.B. 2944 and protect them from 'unnecessary regulation.' ... 'The new law specifies that neither the Illinois Department of Health, nor a local health department, can regulate potluck dinners sponsored by a group of individuals or religious, charitable, or non-profit organizations If the event is a free, non-commercial gathering.' Rutherford described the legislation's saving grace, 'Pot luck dinners are a community tradition that should never have fallen under the broad scope of regulators. Before this law, it was church potlucks and community senior settings that were being shut down. Eventually, the neighborhood Super Bowl party might have been targeted, because friends were bringing in the hot wings.'"

While the neighborhood Super Bowl party does not seem to be in jeopardy, the school bake sale has more regulations than one might think for those in Missoula County, Montana:

"Food Service in Missoula County...
The local health department DOES NOT regulate private groups serving food only to their own members and guests. These events and 'potlucks' are considered private and are not regulated. If an event is advertised as public and targets members of the public outside the group membership for purposes of fund-raising, then the event is 'public' and is regulated.
Missoula City-County Health Department will grant waivers to allow certain low risk foods to be prepared in home kitchens for fund-raising events of not-for-profit organizations that serve food to the public for less than 14 days in a calendar year. ..."

To qualify for a waiver, several conditions need to be met by those selling the food (vendors), and even bake sales are only allowed to sell certain foods under certain conditions.

A few of these regulations include:
"Vendors prohibit direct hand contact to cooked food ... Vendors limit the type of homemade food sold or offered to the following: Candies, Coffee, Tea, Cookies, Juice and fruit drinks, Preserves, Cakes, Cupcakes, Pop, Breads, Popcorn, Fruit pies (no cream pies, pumpkin, meringue, custard) NOTE: Cream or whipped cream, custard or meringue finings [sic] or toppings are prohibited. Frostings made with uncooked eggs are prohibited."

Questions of the Week:
What are the rules and regulations for potlucks and bake sales where you live? Are there regulations for food served at parties? Do these rules vary based upon where the event will be held and/or who will be attending? What regulations should there be for potlucks (if any)? Why do you think that potlucks should (or should not) be regulated? What regulations should (or should not) be implemented for bake sales? Should bake sales and potlucks be regulated differently? Why or why not?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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