Salt Lake County » With festival season here, budget constraints are forcing the Salt Lake Valley Health Department to cut back inspections by an estimated 40 percent. To see what, exactly, the Health Department found in 2008, The Salt Lake Tribune created and analyzed a database of more than 1,000 food booth inspection reports.
West Valley City » On a Saturday in May, Karen Creswick and Bonnie Catten were on the hunt for telltale signs that food being served to the public could potentially make customers sick.
At the Telemundo Cinco De Mayo festival, the Salt Lake Valley Health Department environmental health specialists found what they were looking for at their second stop: About 30 pounds of shredded beef and large pots of tomatillos, tomatoes and chilies cooked at home.
"They're going to have to throw all of this away," Creswick said unapologetically. Health inspectors have no way of ensuring the safety of home-cooked food, she notes, which is why it must be made on site or in an approved kitchen, such as a restaurant.
"We want to keep [away] the dogs, the cats, the fish and the frogs, the poopy diapers," she explained.
Summertime means eating hotdogs at July 4th celebrations and cotton candy at the Utah State Fair. In all, about 1,000 temporary food booths are set up at more than 200 events, mainly during the summer.
In the past, county food inspectors warded off the sources of food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella and giardia, by visiting each booth, peering into every pot, verifying that employees wash their hands, checking that pans are correctly cleaned.
But this summer, those guardians of your grub (and gut) are cutting back on the number of inspections -- by an estimated 40 percent. So-called "low-risk" booths -- where the food requires little preparation or handling -- will see fewer inspectors.
In the wake of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department's cutbacks, The Salt Lake Tribune analyzed more than 1,000 food-booth inspection reports from 2008 and found:
» Inspectors find violations nearly every time they look, on average citing almost two violations per booth. Some can seem nit-picky: the booth doesn't have walls, the plastic utensils aren't pointed in the same direction, boxed food isn't at least 6 inches above the ground. But then there is the disgusting: Employees who don't wash their hands, raw meat stored with ready-to-eat food, and these observations: "toothbrush, razor, etc., stored with food utensils," "excess flies in the booth," "employees lack knowledge of sushi safety."
» Nearly 38 percent of the violations were considered "critical," ranging from no hand-washing station to food not hot or cold enough to kill bacteria. Such violations are more likely to result in a food-borne illness.
» Few booths are ever shut down, even if the vendors have a laundry list of violations. Just 35 booths were closed last year, either because the vendor didn't have a permit or they were considered an "imminent health hazard" because there was no sink to wash hands.
» Not surprisingly, the largest events, including the Utah State Fair, Farmer's Market in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County fair log the most violations.
A new focus: the cooked and cut » As it does with restaurants, the department will classify booths as being at high or low risk of causing a food-borne illness. High-risk booths serve meat, cooked vegetables, rice, sliced melons and tomatoes or foods that require a lot of preparation or handling, according to Tom Trevino, supervisor of the department's bureau of food protection. They will be inspected at least once per event, while low-risk booths -- selling roasted nuts, popcorn, cotton candy, ice cream -- will now receive sporadic attention.
Tighter budgets are driving the shift, Trevino said. Hiring freezes and office restructuring reduced the number of inspectors visiting booths by half.
It's riskier to eat at a food booth than a restaurant, according to the department. One factor is most booths are run by volunteers who don't work in the food industry.
Nevertheless, no food-borne illness was definitively linked to a temporary booth last year, though at least five and possibly nine booths were named by people who got sick from the bacteria salmonella or campylobacter or the parasite giardia. Because callers were vague, they could have been referring to a booth or a permanent vendor.
'I would not be one bit afraid' » But one booth that was named twice as the source of illnesses in 2008 is also the top violator of the food-sanitation code, according to the Tribune analysis.
Chile Verde racked up 62 violations last year for mistakes ranging from employees drinking or eating in the food preparation area to allowing cheese, beef and sour cream to remain at dangerous temperatures. It was shut down once for not having a food permit.
The Health Department has placed Chile Verde on a "watch list" and met with the owner, advising a checklist for employees, Trevino said. He noted Chile Verde is likely the top violator simply because it appears at so many events.
Antonio Galicia, listed as the owner by the state Commerce Department, didn't return calls. But a fellow vendor defended the Mexican fare and food booths in general.
"I would not be one bit afraid to eat Tony's food at an event. To say Chile Verde is an offender is ridiculous," said Paul Colosimo, who runs Colosimo Sausage booths to build up business for his wholesale company.
His booths also are on the top 10 violator list, mostly for violations that weren't critical, though one was closed for lacking a permit. Colosimo said nobody has gotten sick from eating at his booths. "We sell a safe product."
He said the "system is skewed" against booths, compared to food carts, which are inspected less often. Violations are inevitable, he added: Vendors are "basically building the restaurant from scratch every time they go out."
Low risk, low temperature -- still violations » Colosimo also owns Dippin' Dots, which, along with Snowie Shaved Ice, are considered low-risk. Still, they were among the top violators last year.
Two Dippin' Dots booths were shut down for a lacking permit and hand-washing station. The vendor's most serious violations included having personal items in the hand sink and sanitizer that was too weak or too strong.
But most mistakes at both businesses were minor; their owners say no one has been sickened by their products. Colosimo said Dippin' Dots, an ice-cream product frozen to 40 degrees below zero, is safe.
"Young kids are working for me. Sometimes they don't put the right combination bleach in the [sanitizer] water. If they left their food handlers permit in the car, that's a violation," he said.
The most critical violations cited at Snowie booths, which sell snow cones, included a contaminated open bag of ice and excess flies and hornets.
One booth was shut down for not having a permit. Another was closed because it posed an "imminent health hazard" -- there was no place for employees to wash hands.
Gordon Rupp estimates there are 30 different Snowie owners in the valley. His company, Snowie LLC, manufactures and sells the snow-cone shacks, and it sells cones at events.
"Snowie is probably in every event that happens in the Salt Lake Valley, which of course will make the violations go up higher," Rupp said, adding that the food he sells -- ice and syrup -- are inherently low risk. "We have no dairy. We have no meat. There's nothing that can go rotten."
Still, his company created a checklist to help young employees avoid violations.
"They're 16 years old, and they're learning how to work," he said. "You put your trust in them as a business owner."
'Take care of the people' » The rest of last year's top violators will still regularly see inspectors since they are considered high risk, including Antojitos Mexicanos and the Greek Orthodox Church.
Low-risk booths with a history of problems or those that are new will see inspectors more frequently than their peers.
But the Health Department's main method to avert outbreaks is education: All vendors who apply for a permit will go over their menu with an inspector and explain how they plan to follow the health code.
Education is also why there are so few booth closures, the department says. Inspectors point out mistakes and expect them to be fixed right away. For example, food handlers missing the correct sanitizer solution are allowed to go buy some.
The Greek Orthodox Church logged several violations during the September Greek Festival, including storing a razor and toothbrush near utensils, holding food at dangerous temperatures and keeping a chemical by some chocolate syrup. But the festival wasn't closed, Trevino said, because "there was not an imminent health hazard that could not have been abated."
While a temporary event is inherently more risky, he said the public should feel safe eating the food at booths. "We are reducing those inherent risks by our education and our interventions with them," he said.
The handlers at Puebla Antojitos didn't appear upset when they were required to dump their food -- and profit -- at the Cinco de Mayo event.
"It's all right with her," said 12-year-old Kevyn Robles of his aunt and cook Miriam Vasquez. "She understands you have to take care of the people."
Creswick and Catten had moved on to the next booth: asking to see where the shredded cabbage was cut and how the knife was cleaned.
Eric Watson, Martin Foy and Tony Semerad contributed to this story.
The Salt Lake Tribune created and analyzed a database of more than 1,000 food both inspection reports for 2008 in the wake of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department's decision to cut back on inspections of certain types of booths.
Most common violations, 2008
Food sanitation violations are classified as non-critical or critical, meaning they are most likely to lead to an illness outbreak.
230 » Food holding temperatures weren't safe. Except during preparation or cooling, potentially hazardous foods like meat and dairy must be maintained at 41°F or lower or 135°F or higher because bacteria grows most rapidly in the temperatures in between.
100 » Food handlers were smoking, eating or drinking in the food area.
88 » Sanitizer used to clean work stations and equipment was either ineffective or toxic.
57 » Hand-washing station wasn't set up or didn't work.
19 » Chemicals were stored near food.
164 » Single-service items like plastic utensils, straws or cups weren't protected from potential contamination.
100 » No test strips available to determine if sanitizer concentration was correct.
99 » Food wasn't stored at least 6 inches off the ground to avoid insect or other contamination.
85 » Booth didn't have floor or sidewalls, which are necessary to reduce dust and dirt contamination.
3 » Ineffective or no hair control.
Sources: Salt Lake Tribune analysis; Salt Lake Valley Health Department's food safety guides.
Look for a hand sink » Even a temporary hand sink with soap, paper towels, a jug of water with a continuous pour spigot and a catch-basin for the dirty water is OK. Food handlers must wash their hands before they start to prepare food, after using the bathroom, after touching raw meat and eggs, when switching between raw and ready-to-eat food, before putting on gloves and after coughing, sneezing, eating and smoking.
No bare-handed contact » Workers must use tongs, spatulas, deli tissues or gloves when handling food that won't be cooked after it is touched, like bread or tomatoes.
Cashiers can't touch food » If they must touch food, they should wash their hands first.
Covered hair » Food handlers and servers should control their hair, either with hair nets, hats or by tying back long locks.
No smoking or eating » Employees should not smoke or eat where food is prepared or stored or where equipment is washed.
Food workers only » Only employees are allowed in the food preparation area. Visitors, family members and children are not allowed.
Source: Salt Lake Valley Health Department's Food Safety Guide for Temporary Events