Food safety bureaucracy proves a minefield for MCC Relief Sale

April 25, 2012 | Feature | Number 9
By Donita Wiebe-Neufeld | Alberta Correspondent

Anne Wiens is determined to avoid food safety inspection hassles like those experienced the last time the annual Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale was hosted in Didsbury, Alta., in 2009.

Even though regulations were complied with according to information the sale committee had received, a zealous inspector made things difficult. The inspector focused on the Lao church booth, which had made its spring rolls at a Calgary restaurant and froze them for transport to the sale. The inspector demanded to see the restaurant owner’s licence and health certificate. He shut the booth down while the church volunteers sent to Calgary for the paperwork.

“We took two hours to acquire it on a Saturday, and they lost at least 50 percent of their potential sales.” Wiens says.

The inspector also demanded that food temperatures be monitored hourly with a probe, whereas Wiens had documentation asking for this every two hours with a digital thermometer. Hand-wash stations were accessible—one station per every two booths—but the inspector said there should be one in every booth, even though space constraints made this awkward.

Demands that everything be cooked onsite were also made. “The ladies at the bake table were just waiting for him to come by and give them a hard time,” Wiens says.

The inspector also wanted everything ready first thing in the morning, even though food for the noon meal would not be started until later.

After the 2009 sale, Wiens made a call. “It seems the Calgary inspection process may have been due to a high-handed inspector who took himself very seriously, and will not be involved this year,” Wiens says, adding that the inspector’s superior promised to call her back, but never did.

This year, Wiens has proactively requested a meeting with the Calgary inspection office, but she was told to just submit the paperwork. “Now when I try to call a meeting, they don’t have staff,” she laments. “So I wonder why I’m beating my head against a wall to volunteer!”

“We are aware of the fact that we are feeding a large number of people and do not want anyone to become ill, so careful procedures are good and we want to comply with that thinking,” Wiens affirms, but ever-changing standards, increasingly stringent requirements and overly zealous application of rules all make it more difficult to run the food portion of the sale.

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