Keeping Fair Food Safe (If Not Healthy) to Eat
Only one event could bring us such fine fare: the Arizona State Fair. If you've tackled the exotic cuisine at this year's festivities, you know what we're talking about. If you haven't, the fair is still on for one more week (it closes on November 6th) and there is a smorgasbord of deep-fried, chocolate-dipped, cheese-smothered, sugar-covered items for you to try.
No other institution so consistently offers up an evermore-shocking menu of Fear Factor-inspired monstrosities. From the pits of the deep fryer to the insects you thought you couldn't eat and survive, it's the finest of gross-out cuisine - and, it turns out, it's completely safe to eat. According to Maricopa County health inspectors, anyway.
Get a taste of what it's like in the field after the jump.
According to the Maricopa County Department of Environmental Services - the folks who inspect restaurants and try to prevent food-borne illnesses from spreading - it's (theoretically) just as safe to eat at the Arizona State Fair as it is at the Arizona Biltmore.
"We already know what the risks are that's what we try to address," says Environmental Operations Supervisor Robert Stratman. They know the food will be served outdoors, for example, and they have regulations for that. In fact, there are regulations that govern vendors' sinks, water sources, waste disposal, refrigeration and food sources and temperatures, too.
Stratman, who was a food inspector himself once-upon-a-time, says vendors at the fair have to apply for a Seasonal Food Establishment Permit with the county and will be inspected twice during the fair.
We tagged along on a recent inspection of some of the fair's food venues to see just how one regulates the purveyors of chocolate-dipped scorpions and edible larvae.
The first challenge is pretty obvious: serving and storing food safely in makeshift, traveling kitchens.
"It's called a temporary establishment for a reason," Raymond Campa, an inspector with Maricopa County's Department of Environmental Services explained Friday as he walked from trailer to trailer, wielding his thermometer and clipboard. "They have to improvise."
In and out of the trailer kitchens we went. Campa had his routine down pat. He's all business, in and out of each establishment in about 20 minutes flat. First, he introduces himself to the person-in-charge. (We're going to try really hard right now not the make a snarky comment about carnies...though they did tend to have small hands).
In each trailer - some clean, some as dirty and grease-covered as you imagine -Campa shines a tiny flashlight into the grills and machinery to check for insects and dirt build-up. Then he makes sure that each truck's water and waste lines are connected and clean. He verifies that they all have hand-washing stations and that no food is sitting directly on the ground. (You're welcome.)
Perhaps most importantly, though, Campa takes out his thermometer and checks the temperature of all the food in the fridge, freezer and on the stove. This is the way to best prevent vendors from serving unsafe, undercooked food. Then again, since a lot of the food at the fair is pre-cooked and quickly frozen, there's not much fresh, well, anything to preserve.
The regulations are designed to protect the public from food-borne illnesses in light of the...umm...unique challenges that an event like the fair presents. For example, how does the county regulate the newest gross-out hit of this year's fair, the Maggot Melt Sandwich?
"From an inspector's standpoint, there's really no difference," Campa says. "We're looking that all of the foods that are prepared are coming from an approved source."
According to Stratman, it's possible to ensure that maggots (which are actually meal worms, we're told) are "grown in a manner that ensures they're not contaminated."
"Those kinds of items are not regulated like meat, but there are approved vendors," he assures us.
So, is it safe to eat at the fair? "Any kind of food service that's done improperly can make you sick," Stratman says, adding, "I don't think you're taking a risk eating at the fair."
We just might not recommend riding the Scrambler right after sampling the Rocky Mountain Oysters.