The dog days of summer are still upon us, and all across the country, Americans are making the most of long days and warm nights by paying a visit to their state or county fair. Fairs are a quintessential summer experience; from livestock showcases to game booths to fried food and Ferris wheels, they offer something for pretty much everyone.
Most fairs take place during the warm summer months – a season for relaxation, celebration, and outdoor activities, and a season for foodborne illness. That’s right; foodborne illnesses are more common during the summer for a number of reasons. People are cooking and eating outside more often, the food that they’re eating isn’t always properly refrigerated or prepared on a properly disinfected surface, warm temperatures encourage the growth of bacteria, and informal venues like family cookouts or food stands at the fair don’t always stick to best practices when it comes to food safety.
Fairs and festivals introduce a number of unique food safety considerations that attendees would do well to keep in mind. Here are steps you can take to control your exposure to foodborne pathogens and make sure that the only time you experience nausea at the fair is while strapped into the seat of the Tilt-A-Whirl:
- Choose your vendors wisely: One of the great joys of the state fair is the food – this writer’s favorite is deep-fried novelties like Twinkies and Nutter Butters, despite the fact that they do your body and long-term health absolutely no favors. Fairgoers should keep in mind, however, that fair food isn’t always safe. Before you buy food from a vendor, take a look at their booth and use your common sense to assess whether or not it’s safe. Is the workstation clean? Are the employees wearing gloves or hairnets? Do they have a sink to wash their hands or a fridge to store their food in?
- Check the inspection report: Rules about health inspection vary widely from state to state. Generally, food vendors are required to submit to regular inspections by the county health department. In some states, vendors are required to display their most recent inspection report somewhere on their stand. If you’re in such a state, look for the report – make sure the vendor’s been inspected, and look to see whether or not the county health inspector registered any violations. If there’s no report visible on the stand, the truly conscientious fairgoer can always opt to check with the local health department (although doing so from the top of a Ferris wheel might be tricky).
- Bring your own food: You can avoid the question of whether or not food vendors are safe entirely by bringing your own food to the fair – just check beforehand to make sure that outside food is allowed into the event that you’ll be attending. With your own food, you don’t have to worry about all the negative health outcomes associated with high-sugar and high-fat foods that have also been breaded and deep fried for good measure (unless, of course, that’s what you’re bringing from home). You can eat healthier, eat cheaper, and you don’t have to entrust the safety of the food you’re putting into your body to someone else
- … but store it properly: If you’re bringing your own food to the fair, you’re on the hook to make sure that it’s stored in a safe and proper way. Keep perishable items in a cooler or insulated packaging to keep their temperature down. Cold foods need to stay cold, and hot foods need to stay hot. Food that need to be refrigerated won’t keep for a full day at the fair; once it’s out of the cooler, it’ll keep for an hour or less on a hot day. Pre-packaged items, as well as fruits with rinds or nuts in the shell, are generally safer than other choices.
- Use your head, wash your hands: All of the normal food safety precautions apply to food that you eat at the fair. If you’re bringing it from home or buying it there, make sure that you wash your hands thoroughly before eating. That means an extended scrub with soap and hot water, with special attention paid to the spaces between your fingers, the backs of your hands, and other commonly neglected areas. If you don’t have access to a sink and hot water, bring along hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes so that you can get your hands clean. If you’ve been petting animals, going on rides, or playing games at booths, you’ve been exposed to a lot of other people’s germs and the handwashing advice is doubly important.
Menus at fairs do not often tell you everything that is in a food item. This is very concerning for those with food allergies. If you’re not sure what is in a food item, ask the food vendor what’s in the food. If you’re still unsure as to whether something will be ok for you or your family member to eat, do not eat it. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Fairs have emergency medical areas, but the last thing you want to worry about is getting rush to the hospital on a day of fun. It’s also helpful to know where the emergency medical areas are at the fair. You never know when you may need them.
Keep these tips in mind and you run a much lower risk of accidentally contracting foodborne illness at the fair. If you do get sick, remember to notify your local health department – keeping local authorities abreast of these developments is the best way to prevent your spread. Remember also that most fairs will have a specific person trained in and charged with overseeing food safety. You can always get in touch with them to ask any questions you might have.
Remember, reporting foodborne illness is always a good idea. According to the CDC, “Anytime you think you may have gotten a foodborne illness, report it to your local health department, even if you have already recovered. The local public health department is an important part of the food safety system. Often, calls from concerned citizens are how outbreaks are first detected. If a public health official contacts you to find out more about an illness you had, your help is important. Information from healthy people can be just as important as information from sick people in public health investigations. Your help may be needed even if you are not sick.”
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)