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Forum talks food safety

By Staff | Jul 8, 2011

The Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce and state Sen. John Unger (D-Jefferson and Berkeley) held an informational forum Thursday, June 30 to clarify county policy regarding nonprofit organizations serving food at fairs and festivals.

Panel members from the Office of Environmental Health Services as well as staff from the Jefferson County Health Department answered questions from members of the public.

Linda Whaley, food program manager at the OEHS, gave a PowerPoint presentation about concerns related to “temporary food establishments.”

Whaley defined such establishments as those that operate for a period of no more than 14 consecutive days in conjunction with a single event or celebration.

According to Whaley, West Virginia code exempts any nonprofit, religious, charitable or educational organization from meeting hotel/restaurant rules for food handling at public events, which require for-profit organizations and businesses to obtain permits.

According to Heather Morgan, executive director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, some controversy broke out after members of the Rotary club, a nonprofit organization, as well as the Animal Welfare Society were denied permits to handle food at the Mountain Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival held in early June.

The Kiwanis club of Jefferson County, a charitable organization, was also forced to cancel their planned fundraiser after receiving differing messages from the Jefferson County Health Department with regard to its food permit.

“Communication was the biggest problem,” Morgan said.

Tom Trumble, a member of the Shepherdstown Rotary Club, addressed his concerns with the panel after being denied a permit to sell food at the arts and crafts festival without written notice.

Trumble, who explained that the Rotarry Club plans to sell food at its annual July fourth picnic next week, expressed his frustration with the health department’s “differential enforcement” of regulations that he said his organization attempted to comply with.

“Rotary would love to go to the (food handler) training. It’s not our job to give food poisoning,” he said.

Bill Zaleski, environmental supervisor for the Jefferson County Health Department, blamed recent changes in the department’s staff for its confusion about regulations for nonprofits.

“The ideal situation would be upfront communication,” he said.

Zaleski said that the health department hopes to improve communication with event organizers and potential vendors. He confirmed that nonprofits may sell food at public events without permits unless required by the event organizers.

Sen. Unger encouraged nonprofit groups to continue to try comply with the health department’s regulations though they may not be required to.

Unger said that one goal of the meeting was to create “a cooperation” between the local health department and state health department.

“We really wrestle with this stuff,” he said.

In a conversation following the forum and the Rotary’s July Fourth picnic, Tom Trumble confirmed that the group was able to obtain its permit for the event without a problem.

Trumble called the misunderstanding with the Health Department last month “a fiasco of their own making” and said that he still questions the department’s ability to communicate effectively with the public.

“The hope is that they will indeed improve their interest in and ability to keep the public informed,” he said.