New food code crackdown

Updated mandate applies to hosting bake sales.

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Bake sales like this one aren't as easy to hold with new, stricter food codes. But they're not impossible, health officials say. - File photo

Every year, Felix Neck hosts a Fall Festival fundraiser that offers families a leisurely outdoor afternoon with crafts, activities, and an annual bake sale, where proceeds benefit the wildlife refuge. This year, however, funds came in short — a cut that’s linked to a new food code.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health introduced the new food code in October 2018, updating the one that’s been in effect since 1999. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “the Food Code is a model for safeguarding public health and ensuring food is unadulterated and honestly presented when offered to a consumer. It represents the FDA’s best advice for a uniform system of provisions that address the safety and protection of food offered at retail and in food service.”

Interpretation and enforcement of the new code is regulated by each Massachusetts town board of health. Among the notable changes are new rules for hosting bake sales, inspection compliance, and sanitation protocols.

“We’re paying attention to the code,” Edgartown health agent Matt Poole told The Times.

Edgartown has taken an active role in considering the rules of the code. In September 2017, they hired a food inspector, Kathe Kiley, who’s been proactive in keeping the town in full compliance.

“We could only have baked goods cooked and individually wrapped from a commercial kitchen,” Felix Neck educator Liz Dengenis told The Times. “Traditionally, all our volunteers bring their ‘famous’ baked goods to sell and donate. This year, we have to switch to asking Mocha Mott’s, Scottish Bakehouse, and Sweet Bites to individually wrap products we could sell. We probably made about a quarter of what we usually do.”

A similar situation came up during this year’s Christmas in Edgartown craft fair and bake sale, hosted at the Edgartown School. The annual fundraiser benefits the eighth grade class.

“It’s the first time we didn’t have a bake sale in I don’t even know how many years,” Edgartown School vice principal Anne Fligor said.

But Poole said bake sales are allowed. “It’s just more involved than ordinary bake sales we’re used to,” he said.

“Blended events” pose confusion, according to Poole. A blended event includes food from both licensed and home kitchens.

“In the event that someone gets sick, we need to sort through the mishap,” he said. “If someone bites something hard and breaks a tooth, we need to know which kitchen the product came from.”

But there are workarounds. Poole said as long as the board of health is notified with plenty of time, they can work with organizations to conduct events with subtle modifications to meet the code.

“With ample time leading up to the event, and a complete and clear application including a point of contact that is familiar with the food code … I’m sure a solution could be crafted,” he said.

One workaround is configuring customer flow and layout of the event, where bake-sale items produced by unlicensed sources are adequately separated from licensed sources. “The consumer has to be informed by a clearly visible placard saying this product was made in a residential kitchen,” he said. “Basically, Consume at your own risk.”

The board of health held two education sessions in October to brief the community on what to expect with the new code. The morning session was for classic sit-down restaurants, and the afternoon session was for retail grab-and-go businesses.

“The message at the session was, The board of health is very accessible, and we would like to engage our permit holders to achieve compliance, and work with them so they can still do everything they want to do,” Poole said. “If we have a food mishap, it reflects on the tourism industry here … We’re paying more attention to food.”

Another aspect of the new food code is more rigid inspections. “All inspection reports are public, and the new code requires us to post this notice,” Poole said.

The problem, according to Poole, is that it’s hard to coach compliance.

“You can ask someone to do something four times, and go a fifth time and they still haven’t done it,” he said. “How do you get them to do what they’re supposed to do? Motivate, and incentivise.” Poole said administering penalties or fines is not a good use of his time. “Don’t make me have a hearing because you can’t get your soup hot enough,” he said.

The new inspection form is tailored to letter grading. “A ‘B’ in West Tisbury may be different from a ‘B’ in Oak Bluffs,” Poole said. “That’s why I’m not so sure about posting a letter grade on someone’s door. It’s not fair to the consumer or the establishment.”

Oak Bluffs health agent Meegan Lancaster said the new food code hasn’t proposed too many major shifts in the town so far.

“I think what it did was clarify the gray areas of what the previous code said. There’s adjustments in temperatures and terminologies, but nothing major,” Lancaster said.

The town of Oak Bluffs doesn’t have a designated health inspector, but Lancaster said she has someone assisting her part-time throughout the year.

Marina Lent, Chilmark administrative assistant for the board of health, said there are certain changes that could affect some of the town’s establishments, but they’re so strongly seasonal, it’s not something she’s delved into quite yet.

“I’m off the hook for right now, but I’ll get into it once I start doing inspections this spring,” Lent said. Chilmark doesn’t have a health agent, or a food inspector.

Another part of the new food code is requiring all food establishments to have a bodily-fluid cleanup kit. “What I call the poop and puke kit,” Poole said. It contains a bucket, gloves, goggles, and a smock, and includes a pre-thought-out plan for response. “If you go to a restaurant or bar and see a guy throwing up in the men’s room, what’s the protocol? Who jumps in, and what precautions do they take before they resume their job?”

Overall, Poole said to expect more attention to achieving compliance in Edgartown. “Communication on the new standard is going to be ongoing,” Poole said. “The idea is to have everyone engaged, and raise the bar incrementally. Temporary events and ticketed events are something we need to work on. We have a requirement to see that those ticketed temporary events are properly done. Anyone contemplating a fundraiser or event — show up early enough so we can guide you to success … Everything runs through me, so if someone doesn’t like the answer they get, come to me.”