How food inspectors make sure you eat safely at the California State Fair
On the opening day of the California State Fair, Edith Leon, 46, enjoyed her Krispy Kreme doughnut bacon burger after waiting a year to order the meal a second time.
“It’s delicious,” Leon said. “I like the combination of sweet and salty. The meat is not greasy. It’s just really good.”
Leon, a self-described stickler for ensuring all food providers follow proper safety precautions, said she’s never had any issues or concerns with food-borne illness or food handling at the fair in the decade she’s attended the event.
Behind the scenes, health inspectors are on site every day, conducting surprise inspections and providing assistance to all 175 food stands at the fair to ensure food safety.
“There’s lots of possibilities for major violations, so they absolutely do happen out there,” said Zarha Ruiz, a supervising environmental specialist with the Sacramento County Environmental Management Department. “On the first day, there’s things that can go wrong from a vendor. But that’s why we’re here – to support them.”
The inspections are focused on eliminating all possibility of risk posed by food practices, explained Steve LePage, an environmental health specialist with the county’s Environmental Management Department.
An inspection can take from 30 to 40 minutes at a larger booth, and about 20 minutes for a smaller stand like the oversized lemon booths selling lemonade.
In addition to checking food preparations procedures and practices in use, inspectors make sure food is prepared that day and comes from approved sources.
“An example of an unapproved source would be a game animal that you acquired on a personal hunting trip versus meats that are USDA inspected,” Ruiz said.
LePage showed The Sacramento Bee the steps taken during a typical food inspection, demonstrating on The Bacon Habit, a food vendor at the fair selling a variety of bacon-themed foods.
Beginning with a thorough hand washing, LePage checked that all chemicals inside the prep station were properly stored and temperatures were within the designated ranges of 41 degrees or below for cold storage and 135 degrees or above for hot foods.
“Anything in between there we call the danger zone, and bacteria can start growing at that point,” LePage explained. He also checked final cooking temperatures of foods on the grill, which should be a minimum of 160 degrees to kill bacteria.
Nathan Vandewarker is an owner of The Bacon Habit, where the general philosophy is bacon makes it better. The business began by selling chocolate-covered bacon at the fair in 2009. Now the stand sells everything from bacon-wrapped turkey legs to bacon-wrapped asparagus.
Hot plates at required temperatures in The Bacon Habit’s kitchen were in use on the opening day for french fries, “bacon bombs” and pepper jack cheese wrapped in dough and then wrapped in bacon.
“We’re really careful with being clean and holding things at the right temperature,” Vandewarker said. “In Sacramento ... it’s not that hard to keep things warm. We’re worried a lot more about keeping things cold.”
When temperatures soar into the triple digits, Vandewarker said he and his staff keep cold foods cold by bringing the right refrigerators that can handle the heat. And there are service professionals present at the fair to offer assistance when needed.
During the food inspection demonstration, LePage explained that cooked foods stored in the fridge should be placed above raw foods to prevent cross-contamination.
Food vendors are only allowed to open to the public once they pass the criteria enforced by health officials, explained William Gardiner, the operating manager of WG Concessions which runs three cheese-centric stands at the fair.
The rainbow grilled cheese is the top-selling food item at Maddy Moo’s, one of the three stands Gardiner supervises. The whimsical product, a favorite among children, uses a rainbow mozzarella cheese produced by Kraft, he said.
Refrigeration is critical to the operations, and food is only removed from the cooling unit when it’s time to begin preparation. All food sold at the stands Gardiner oversees is also cooked to order.
“From the time the product gets here, it goes straight into the refrigerator or into a freezer,” Gardiner said. “From that point, when it’s time to prep, they pull it out, they prep it and put it back in. Refrigeration has to be 41 degrees or below ... anything above 41 degrees we discard.”
Food inspectors will work with vendors found to have a food safety violation to immediately correct the situation. Food providers failing to properly wash their hands before food preparation or poor food temperatures are the most common violations that can lead to food borne illnesses.
“If they’re not able to correct something that’s as significant as a major violation, they will not be allowed to sell at the fair until that’s resolved,” Ruiz said.
Some of the vendors at the State Fair have been selling food at the event for over 40 years, so they know how to prepare for the weather, she said.
“The vendors at the California State Fair are professionals,” she said. “They’re experts at what they do, and we provide them with all of the support they need. We’ve invested a tremendous amount of time and resources educating them ahead of time, (and) we’ve provided food safety education for them in English and Spanish.”
Gardiner has been in the food industry for 15 years and this is his seventh year selling food at the state fair. He didn’t hesitate to emphasize his level of confidence with all the fair’s food offerings.
“Everybody here (upholds) the highest standards of food safety and food quality,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I would eat at any one of these stands and I’d have my family eat at any one of these stands.”