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August 30, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Farm-to-table event turns sour when health inspector crashes party

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Leila Navidi

Brody Blaber, 15, of Overton, helps to pack baskets during the weekly harvest at Quail Hollow Farm in Overton Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011.

Quail Hollow Farm

Farm owner Laura Bledsoe stands with Quail Hollow Farm in the background in Overton on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. Launch slideshow »
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J. Patrick Coolican

They don’t make it easy for those of us who believe in vigorous government, the kind that built the Interstate Highway System, put a man on the moon and invented the Internet.

By “they” I mean our public employees, who we want to believe in but who sometimes leave us shaking our heads.

The most recent example: Quail Hollow Farm in Overton had — or tried to have, anyway — a “farm-to-table” dinner last month. This is when a chef takes vegetables and freshly butchered meats and serves them up right there at the farm to fancy food types — “locavores” — who like their food really fresh. Sounds pretty great, right?

Well, someone at the Southern Nevada Health District saw an ad for the event and decided to get on the case.

The health department called farm owners Laura and Monte Bledsoe and said they’d need a special-use permit because it was a “public” event. They complied, or tried to at least.

The night of the event, the guests arrived at the farm, and so did the food inspector. Here were the issues, according to Laura Bledsoe: Some prepared food packages had no labels; some of the meat was not USDA certified; some food was prepared in advance off-site and not up to proper temperature; vegetables were declared unfit; and there were no receipts for food.

(Um, do you not get the whole farm-to-table thing?)

The Bledsoes asked the inspector if they could make the meal a private event, thereby eliminating the health department’s jurisdiction. A church, for instance, can have a pancake breakfast for its congregants, without health department oversight. And for locavores, this meal was to be something like a religious experience.

Nope.

In the end, the health inspector demanded that bleach be poured on the food, including vegetables, to ensure it was not consumed. Bleach really ruins a meal, I gotta tell you.

Of course, the health department and its 50 inspectors do good work in a very challenging environment that includes more than 17,000 permitted food establishments in Clark County. Our own food critic John Curtas said, “I think they do a great job. They have a huge responsibility. If one buffet, one restaurant has an outbreak of food poisoning, and it gets to be national news, think of the impact on our economy.”

Bledsoe said she understands the need for reasonable regulations to protect the public, but added that it seemed the health department was obsessed with shutting down the event. “There seemed to be no solution other than destroy food and destroy everything that had been done,” she said.

I talked about the Quail Hollow incident with Susan LaBay, an environmental health supervisor with the district. She conceded the department hasn’t inspected an event on a farm like this, but said, “We have to apply the law equally.”

She said if there had been an incident of food-borne illness at the event, we’d be asking different questions, like, where were the regulators?

I, for one, wouldn’t be asking that. If some gourmands go out to a farm and someone gets food poisoning, I’m pretty sure I know what the public reaction — including my own — would be: Too bad. You knew what you were getting yourself into. And that’s that.

Strangely enough, LaBay acknowledged that farm-to-table meals will often be safer than a store-bought one, because fewer hands touching the food usually makes for a safer meal. And she said she’s sympathetic to the idea of legislation that would help farmers host these events while still complying with the law. The problem is that the regulations were written for the era of industrial food production and often don’t allow for freshly butchered meat, raw milk and homemade items like pickles.

Until the law is changed, LaBay said, “We don’t have an option.”

Actually, though, they do. Just as prosecutors use discretion to push some cases harder than others, the department could have seen the ad for the uppity food event, pushed it aside and moved on to the next dodgy Chinese, Mexican or burger joint.

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