SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Before a fairgoer bites into that fair pretzel or funnel cake, the South Dakota Department of Health has helped make sure that food is safe.
“It’s our job to make sure those food vendors are there, we love to make sure they are nice and safe…,” DOH Secretary Melissa Magstadt said.
The DOH, through its office of health protection, is busy inspecting food vendors at numerous events throughout the summer. That includes the recent 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the upcoming South Dakota State Fair as well as smaller fairs and events around the state.
“These are great events… and most people when they go to these events, they already have in mind, which vendor they are going to,” Magstadt said. They don’t think about how safe the food is, Magstadt said.
“I like that people don’t have to think about it because we are,” Magstadt said.
Vendors who want to sell food or drink at events must complete a permit that includes 16 points of inspection.
Magstadt said the 16 points of inspection are provided as part of transparency so vendors are well aware of the standards that must be met.
Inspections start the day the vendor opens to serve the public, before the first sale.
Magstadt describes the inspection process as protective and help-based.
“We’re not interested in playing ‘gotcha,'” Magstadt said. “We want success on both ends.”
Inspectors will coach vendors on how to maintain temperatures that are required, what hand washing technics are needed and similar.
“If we find violations, we don’t necessarily fine the vendor. It might mean we have to throw out that food we found that was not right,” she said. “We have to do that, we’re gonna protect the public. But we will also make sure that you know how to make sure that doesn’t happen tomorrow.
There are times when inspectors shut down a vendor for a day to allow them to take corrective action, she said.
“We come back and re-check,” Magstadt said.
Food inspectors are assigned based on the number of vendors at each event and the length of each event.
“We look at trending history,” Magstadt said. The state fair will have 40 to 45 vendors while the Sturgis Rally will have 140 to 145 vendors.
There were up to nine inspectors at the Sturgis Rally, according to the DOH. More than 325 temporary food service inspections were completed from July 28 through Aug. 10.
Deb Holland, the communications director for the city of Sturgis said the rally had 65 food vendors this year but had 48 in 2022.
The number of violations with each inspection varied from none to five this year, according to the DOH.
Although inspections happen each day of an event, Magstadt said the heaviest lift with any event is the day when vendors want to open.
Inspectors schedule those inspections and DOH is aware those will be busy days so the day is properly staffed. The DOH also works with the Department of Public Safety, which provides inspectors.
Just like vendors don’t all serve the same food, they don’t all have the same vendor setup.
Whether it’s a high-tech vendor truck or a smaller mom-and-pop vendor with tables, the vendor standards are the same, Magstadt said.
For example, drinking ice needs to be completely separate from ice that chills food. There needs to be a certain amount of space between garbage and food serving areas.
Smaller vendors are not at a disadvantage with the requirements, they may just need to meet them in a different safe option than a larger vendor.
Magstadt points to the relationship between vendors and inspectors and the desire to help vendors be successful. “We’re gonna make sure you are going to be able to do that,” Magstadt of meeting food service requirements.
Still, there are always the very few “bad actors” who can’t meet requirements or don’t take corrective actions for violations.
“…bad actors, they are very few and far between,” Magstadt said. Those bad actors don’t last long, she said.
The size of events will also vary. The DOH works with smaller events and county fairs to make sure inspections and standards are met, Magstadt said.
Summer is a busy time for the DOH food inspectors. Late summer is particularly busy as many of the larger events and fairs are happening.
The season cultivates relationships between food vendors who may see each other at multiple events or one event per year, Magstadt said.
“You can see that connectedness,” she said.
Food inspectors also get to know vendors as they both return over the years.
This year, for example, about 70% of the food vendors at the Sturgis Rally, were returning vendors.
“All of those 16 things we look at apply to no matter how that food looks,” Magstadt said.
The critical things to food safety are covered under those 16 principles, she said.