Cracking Down on Illegal Food Servers
The North Central Health District (NCHD) is cracking down on what it says is a surge in mobile food wagons and home-based catering companies that are operating illegally. The spike is at a time of high unemployment, in which many laid-off workers have turned to various types of home-based businesses to earn money.
Carla Coley, Environmental Health Director for the NCHD, said there has been an increase in illegal food servers and sites reported by county environmentalists at local health departments in recent months. Because of this, Coley says county environmentalists are on the look-out for people operating out of their homes or on a street serving food without a food service permit.
Coley described illegal food sites that have been recently discovered in the NCHD’s 13 county service area. Coley said, “While en route to a recent weekend festival, county environmentalists ran across a group frying fish by the side of the road to serve to the public and a church group just down the road selling plates to raise money for their facility.”
Several county environmentalists have also been involved with Department of Agriculture investigations into a person preparing food items from home and selling them to a local food establishment for resale. "You can't serve food to the public without a food service permit, and you can't prepare food in a private home to serve to the public," Coley said.
The permit process involves filling out an application for either a mobile food service permit or permanent food service establishment and undergoing a health department inspection. For a mobile food unit, both the base of operation and each unit receive a permit. There are occasions where temporary food permits can be issued for events that last less than fourteen (14) days. Each type of permit requires advance notice of the health department and prior approval before set-up.
"We're trying to make sure the person opening the business is aware of all the requirements associated with food safety," Coley said. "There are a lot of food safety issues they have to consider and that our offices have to review, which is the purpose of the application."
A mobile food unit must have areas to wash hands and adequately maintain food temperatures and to store supplies. Minimum equipment needs are also required. Coley said most violators encountered are not trying to avoid the proper process. "I think a lot of people simply are not aware," she said.
County environmentalists learn about violators through conversations, local newspapers, advertising fliers, social media, and websites. Violators are found when inspectors are out and about in the county performing other routine inspections.
She said people should be cautious about eating food prepared under conditions that have not been inspected by the health department. Salmonella and E. coli bacteria are the two most common food-borne illnesses. “You run a greater risk of contracting a food-borne illness at an illegal operation than at a permitted establishment. All facilities, including mobiles, should have a permit and inspection posted in plain view for the public to see.” Coley said. “If it is not visible, ask to see a copy of their latest inspection report.”
Information on the permitting process can be obtained at your local health department and is also made available along with all current inspection score for all permitted facilities at the Environmental Health page of the Georgia Division of Public Health’s website www.georgiaeh.us.
If you find a violator in your area, please contact your local health department or contact the District office at 478-751-6303 or at the “Contact Us” link under About Us at www.northcentralhealthdistrict.com.