Food requirements and public health policy clarified by district sanitarian

By Jeff Havens
District Sanitarian

  Last year, I wrote a guest column to address emerging environmental health concerns within the Terry community. The purpose of this column is to reiterate and clarify what was previously written with regards to food safety.

For about 14 months, I have had the privilege of being the new sanitarian for Dawson, Prairie and Wibaux counties here in Montana. During that time, we have witnessed many changes in and around communities that comprise the district, and will no doubt experience more as the energy boom progresses. 
As a matter of sound public health policy, these changes necessitated creation of new policies and enforcement of existing codes and rules, which balance the rights of individuals with rights of the communities in which they reside. Such enforcement has involved many activities of public interest from licensing trailer courts to food service at special events. 
One of those topics of concern is the preparation of food in an individual’s home for sale or service to the public. In general, this practice is not allowed at licensable food events or facilities because the inspector cannot legally verify the food was processed under safe conditions. Therefore, the first question that should be answered is whether the food service in question requires a license. 
     This question is best addressed on a case-by-case basis, but basically involves determining whether the event is private, public or a combination of both.
     Private events at which food is often served, such as picnics, wedding receptions and funeral services are gatherings that do not require a food-service license. However, there are also some public events at which food is served or sold that do not require a license.  Examples are:
• Non-profit organizations serving or selling food less than 14 days in a calendar year;
• Gardener, farm owner or farm operator who sells raw and unprocessed farm products at a farmers’ market;
•  Persons selling baked goods or preserves at a farmers’ market.
But even though the public event may not require a license and/or fee, in most cases the food-safety rules still apply, with few exceptions. 
There are also possibilities that arise in which two or more portions of the licensing exceptions are applicable, but the existing codes and rules do not adequately address the situation or are in conflict. In these cases, sound public health policy must be implemented to ensure fair and equal protection under the law with a focus on preventing food-borne illness outbreaks. 
One of these cases is when a non-profit organization wants to sell baked goods that are not potentially hazardous for two weeks at a county fair; this situation is clearly exempt from needing a license and paying a license fee. However, food rules still apply, but the food could be made in an individual’s home.   
If the same organization wanted to serve or sell potentially hazardous foods, such as potato salad, cooked rice, pumpkin pie, cream pies, taco meat and similar foods, the food would have to be made on-site, at the event or in a licensed food-service facility, such as a school or restaurant. As before, no license would be required and no license fee would have to be paid by the organization.
As stated earlier, when a food license is required is best addressed on a case-by-case basis. Regardless, the guideposts are to prevent food-borne illness while ensuring equal protection under the law. Questions regarding environmental health can be addressed by calling the District Sanitarian office at: 406.377.5772 or by visiting the sanitarian webpage at 
NOTE:  Jeff Havens is the sanitarian for Dawson, Prairie and Wibaux counties, Montana. He has successfully completed many federal and state food-safety training courses and conducted thousands of food facility inspections in five states, since 1989. 

Published May 30, 2012

Article Type: 
Guest Opinion


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