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Cook-off tempers cool as Health Dept. explains regulations

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Relations between some local groups and the state department of health have been a little strained over the last few months in St. Lawrence County --ever since two chili cook-offs and another event had to be canceled this winter. The events didn't meet health requirements. At a meeting in February many called the "chili cook-off summit," critics called the rules excessive, confusing and sometimes just random.

This week, the health department has been holding public meetings in towns around the area. They're looking to smooth things out with the churches, fire departments, lodges and other organizations whose events are a big part of North Country life. There's one more meeting, this afternoon at 2 at the Clifton-Fine community center in Star Lake. Nora Flaherty sat in on a meeting in Canton .

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Pyrites firemen Wayne Cuthbert and Jonathan Hughes were concerned about the chicken barbecues that provide much of their budget.

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Nora Flaherty
Digital Editor, News

This was a quieter meeting. Bruce Stone from the state department of health laid out the rules food handling and permitting to an audience of about 35 women and 4 men. Part of the confusion is there’s two kinds of events, private, non-permitted events:

If you’re making macaroni salad for your family and put it in your fridge, that’s good…

And those that require a permit:

what are you going to do if you make it for 400 people?

People listened attentively, took notes, and asked questions: Can you sell freshly-cut slices of pie at a fundraiser? Is deer you’ve butchered in your house ok for a chili cook-off? The answer to both is no, by the way.

Stone was at pains to point out the health department’s mission is to keep people from getting sick—not to ruin their bake sales or barbecues.

That’s our whole mission, that’s what we want to do. We don’t want to do that by shutting down everything. We want to work with you to make sure any event that goes on, goes off safely.

But it’s easy to see why people find the rules confusing. Let’s take brownies. If you bake a pan of brownies at home for a bake sale—which is a non-permitted event—that’s OK.

You can sell them at the bake sale, too, cut up—but if someone gets sick you might be liable because the department considers cutting up the brownies after they’ve been cooked unsafe food handling unless your kitchen is licensed.

But if you’re at a permitted event—where you’re serving food to the public, assuming you’re not a religious, charitable, or fraternal organization—or, for reasons that aren’t totally clear, a fire department—things get more complicated.

It’s enough to make the St Lawrence County Historical Association’s Sue Longshore feel a little overwhelmed:

I just don’t…why bake sales are OK but having home-prepared goods for other events is not ok. It’s just a gray area, I’m having trouble getting my head around the logic of that.

One of the fears a lot of the groups have is that the Health Department is going to shut them down.

That’s Jim Reagan—he’s the communications director for State Senator Patty Ritchie, who’s working with the health department on these meetings. He said it’s important that people understand the regulations and work with the department of health because these events mean so much:

The people you saw tonight each one represents an org of 50-200 members. And in a lot of these small towns the [organizations are] one of the major community groups that provides funding for needs in the community.

It’s for that very reason that Pyrites fireman Wayne Cuthbert is here, along with fire chief Jonathan Hughes and two members of the ladies’ auxiliary.

Our budget is extremely limited, the little barbecues—2 or 3 a year—it really adds to the department’s budget.

Cuthbert had heard rumors about the health department putting roadblocks in front of other fire departments’ chicken barbecues.  

But overall, Cuthbert, Hughes—and everyone else I talked to—felt like the health department’s explanation clarified things:

We just wanted to come and find out what do we gotta do, and make sure… speculation isn’t a good thing, we’ll hear it from the source…instead of “we’re not going to be able to do these anymore”, it’s just information.

But even as the anger that’s characterized some of the earlier meetings on the rules and regulations wasn’t there, there are still worries that maybe some events just won’t happen….or whether there will be more controversies. The department of health reminds everyone to call them well in advance.

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