Editorial: County dodged a bullet on food poisoning | PostIndependent.com

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Editorial: County dodged a bullet on food poisoning

Let's wrap up loose ends about the food poisoning incident June 5 at the Rifle Rodeo.

In part because Garfield County was only partially transparent about the incident and its findings, a few questions have lingered. We were able to clear them up with an open records request and some follow-up questions. (The county’s full report appears at the bottom of this editorial.)

This matters because, first, 80 people got sick. While the pathogen involved, Clostridium perfringens, is fairly common, typically leaves its victims within about 8 hours and is "rarely fatal," according to foodborneillness.com, this could have been more serious if a more dangerous bug were involved.

The case showed three errors of omission.

• A food vendor failed to seek a license for its mobile stand at the rodeo.

• Rodeo organizers also failed to complete required paperwork.

• While the county, which officially took over restaurant inspections from the state just a year ago, has said the food booth wasn't inspected because of the vendor's failing, the event was at the county fairgrounds. It wasn't exactly hidden.

This latter shortcoming has been fixed; within 10 days of the poisoning, the county reports that it added an item to its checklist for renting fairgrounds facilities. Organizations are now required to say whether food will be sold at their events.

Questions remained.

Since the incident, we are told, organizations holding events have faced questions from the public about whether food vendors are licensed. People at the rodeo know where they got the food, but the public has wondered who served it and what food it was. We wondered why the county decided against a fine.

Our open records request and follow-up found that pulled pork sliders served by Shooters Grill, "the only temporary food vendor reported to be present at the rodeo," was blamed for the sickness. The pork was smoked at Smokehouse 1776, which has common ownership with Shooters in downtown Rifle.

The county's final county report said, "36 of 38 who reported eating sliders became ill; all 36 of those ill reported eating sliders, suggesting the sliders as the most likely culprit." In addition, "100 percent of those interviewed with diarrhea ate pork sliders."

The meat apparently was handled poorly.

During a meeting involving public health officials and Shooters owners and employees, "Food safety concerns and violations were revealed during this discussion and included no cold holding, no hot holding, the facility does not maintain temperature logs so there was no way of showing that food was kept at proper temperatures, bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods, no handwashing station, no barrier protection from insects, only one pair of tongs on site, no event coordinator paperwork completed prior to the event occurrence, and no temporary retail food establishment license was applied for or obtained by the persons serving food at the rodeo."

Cold and hot handling refers to guidelines that "potentially hazardous foods must be maintained at a temperature below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (cold holding) or above a temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit."

The county said these shortcomings all refer to the temporary fairgrounds location, not the brick-and-mortar Shooters and Smokehouse stores.

County public information officer Renelle Lott said those permanent locations have had food inspections that were "not out of the ordinary for what you would find in a full-service restaurant."

Shooters owner Lauren Boebert did not return a call seeking her perspective.

We also wondered why Shooters was not fined after 80 people got sick and why county restaurant inspections are not online.

Here are the answers from the county:

State law says that "a fine can only be levied after written notification of violation, therefore a written warning must be issued first. If the violator continues to operate in violation of the code, 'civil penalties' may be applied. As far as Garfield County Public Health staff is aware, the violator did not continue to operate without a permit after this one event."

Inspections are available through the Colorado Open Records Act but aren't proactively posted.

Billy Harkins, environmental health specialist, said inspections "are complex and are not graded simply on pass or fail, clean or not clean. Throughout the course of an inspection, a facility's compliance with many possible violations is assessed. An inspection is a snapshot in time, and not necessarily indicative of what goes on all year.

"In almost every situation there is some room for improvement, and Garfield County Public Health staff tries to be a source of information and support to help facilities remain in compliance with the regulations. … In the rare case that an imminent public health hazard is observed, a facility would be closed until necessary corrective action is taken."

Our overall takeaway is that the county, the rodeo, the restaurant and particularly the consumers dodged a bullet. With the county still new in handling inspections, the incident appears to have helped tighten procedures and raise awareness.

We'd like to see more proactive transparency from the county, including public posting of restaurant inspections. But we don't think you have to fear the pork at the next festival.

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