The Mississippi State Fair opened its gates Wednesday for its annual 12-day run.
Hoping to capitalize on this traffic, food vendors are flooding the fairgrounds offering everything from classic corn dogs to the more obscure fried alligator-on-a-stick.
Each year, with so much food being prepared outside of permanent brick-and-mortar restaurants, food safety is always of interest.
Anticipating concerns, the Mississippi Department of Health hosted a press conference to answer questions on food booth inspections and to demonstrate how inspections of the vendors are conducted.
Anne Hogue, acting Health Department environmentalist, said, “Most of the vendors have been coming to the State Fair for years and know what (the Health Department) expects. Some are new and may not know what to expect, but that’s a good learning opportunity for them.”
Though Hogue said most vendors are old hands to food sanitation, she said “it is outdoors and it’s people that might have never been to this fair. But that can also be good— they come in knowing we mean business.”
The Mississippi Food Code follows the national standards for food safety issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with some additional state regulations. Because regulations from state to state don’t have that much variety, expectations of vendors are pretty similar.
Though each year a few complaints are made, overall, a little training is all the vendors need, Hogue said.
Restaurants and caterers have to apply online for a food facility permit to serve food at the fair. Applicants must provide a floor plan, menu, and a copy of their food manager certificate. The application has a $195 plan review fee, and the process can take up to 30 days.
Once the application has been approved, there is an additional cost for the food permit itself which can range from $34.50 to $230 depending on the vendor’s food risk level.
The Health department inspects food providers one to four times a year. The number of inspections is connected to the particular vendor’s food-borne illness risk level.
A low level would be a facility that only sells food with a low chance of becoming contaminated, typically prepackaged for consumption. High risk level facilities sell a large volume of food and have multiple preparation processes such as cooking, cooling, reheating and processing.
Any complaint made against a vendor is followed up with an inspection, training request, and in some cases, enforcement actions.
Jack Beasley of Funny Face Foods is one of the vendors at this year’s fair. He said that while everyone is required to meet those standards, some are doing more than others.
“There are a lot of non-permanent food stands that come into the Mississippi State Fair,” Beasley said. “With no walls (and) no floor, they’re not self-contained.”
Beasley said many vendors cook and sell their food from tents, which he finds disturbing.
“Basically half the vendors out there want to do it properly and get self-contained units,” Beasley said. “Self-contained units can cost a quarter of million dollars. It’s not really fair that people who choose to do things properly and operate in all 50 states under their codes, and then someone is allowed to come in with a tent — no floor, no sides.”
This year, there are relatively few food vendors in tents and none were available to comment.
“When I see someone in a tent next to me, I just can’t see how that is a qualification to local standards,” Beasley said.
Hogue said that the Health Department expects the same facilities to be installed in fair vendors tents as they have in restaurants. They are required to have a three compartment sink, a hand-washing laboratory, the ability to sanitize, and a food inspection sticker.
Hogue asked the public to be vigilant: “If you see something unusual — anything that would make you uncomfortable to eat there — make sure you give us a call (at the Health Department)” at 601-576-7689.