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What we have is over- enthusiastic enforcers from the department of health.

Health officials, local leaders spar over chili cook-offs

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The cancellation of two chili cook-offs in St. Lawrence County this month is prompting a clash with local health officials. Many community groups rely on food-related events for their fundraising.

The state health department says it's trying to work with those groups to prevent food borne disease while letting the show go on. But some local leaders say the rules are arbitrary and too onerous to follow. As David Sommerstein reports, state lawmakers are stepping in to seek a compromise.

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David Sommerstein
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Two chili cook-off benefits – one for the Canton fire department, one for the Boys and Girls Club in Ogdensburg – had to be cancelled recently because they couldn’t conform to state health code. 

It’s wasn’t the first time.  A chicken BBQ was scratched last summer.  Two events were cancelled from Canton’s Winter Festival two years ago, including a decade-old pea soup and Johnny cake tradition at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, or TAUNY.

What we have is overenthusiastic enforcers from the department of health.

Pat McKeon directs the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce.

There is no reason why enforcers have to go gung ho after a civic organization to shut down something like a chili cook-off because there were not certifiable kitchens and three sinks.  It’s absurd.

McKeon says the state health department office in Canton has become notorious with food suppliers from outside the county.  And that’s hurt the chamber’s annual events.

We have vendors, David, who will not come to those shows because of the local health department enforcers. We’re looking for consistency and continuity in enforcement.

State Health department spokesman Peter Constantakes acknowledges St. Lawrence County is a little different.  In other places, these codes are handled by county health departments, not a state office.

We’ve heard the criticisms and we are sensitive to the criticism because we want people to have safe food, enjoy the community, be with friends, have chili cook-offs.

Constantakes says health officials do want to work with event organizers to make things go smoothly and safely.

Come talk to us, don’t be afraid that the health department is just an agency of no.  That’s not true.  We may help you redesign something or do something a little bit different way so that it will comply with everything that needs to be done.

Benefits – many food-related - are the bread and butter for many civic groups in the North Country.  And they’re an indispensible element of the social fabric in a rural region.  State Senator Patty Ritchie is one of two state lawmakers who’s stepped in to broker a compromise.

These events, especially in times when everybody is struggling to make ends meet, the events are critically important.  We wanted to make sure we can do our part to make sure that the events continued.

Ritchie and Assemblywoman Addie Russell are bringing together chamber director Pat McKeon, local event organizers, and health officials for a private meeting Friday.

They’re planning to hold an open meeting next month to educate the public on health code requirements before the wave of summer events begins.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein.

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