Holy hot dish! New food safety rules mean training

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2011 - 8:11 AM

Minnesota "church ladies" and other cooks at faith-based events now must get additional training in how to feed large groups of people. It's the law for those who serve potlucks and the like.

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Grace Engnell helped Isabelle Thom, 8, stack paper dinner plates while Tom Lockman pulled on rubber gloves before serving Wednesday 's dinner at Bethlehem Baptist Church in south Minneapolis. Ellie Lockman is at center right. Engnell will attend a free training workshop by the Health Department for members of faith-based groups who cook and serve food to large groups.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Grace Engnell relishes baking her signature bread and cookies for weddings, funerals and worship services at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

Even though she's been at it for nearly a dozen years, she doesn't mind that a new state law is now requiring church cooks like her to take training courses on how to prepare food.

"You need this [law]," said Engnell, 70. "It's not an if, and or but. We're talking food. We're talking, you can kill people. I hope churches wake up ... we're not above anything. We need to follow the rules."

In the age of foodborne illnesses, even the Minnesota "church lady" and her fabled hot dish must answer to a higher power. Engnell and other church cooks must now meet new state training requirements if they want to keep on making potluck suppers, pancake breakfasts and other churchly fare.

The new food safety law dubbed the "Church Lady Bill" passed by the Legislature last session exempts faith-based groups from routine state health inspections at events where food is served to large groups. But it requires at least one volunteer who prepares food at large group events to attend training and share what he or she has learned with the other church cooks.

Nearly 600 church volunteers are expected for the first training session, a free videoconference called "Cooking Safely for a Crowd" that will be broadcast to 22 sites around the state Oct. 18, just as fall festival season is heating up. The workshop by the University of Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota Department of Health will cover the causes of foodborne illness, personal hygiene and hand-washing, and storing and preparing foods safely, among other things.

"The things we do at home to make food safe when we're preparing food for our families ... are really not the same things you need to do when preparing food for 400 people at a time," said April Bogard, environmental health supervisor for the Department of Health. "So the workshop is really designed to address those issues on a much larger scale."

For example: "Your domestic refrigerator at home is not necessarily capable of cooling the six turkeys you made up the day before your big event. It will not cool them in an appropriate amount of time in order to provide safe food."

Safety vs. regulation

Before the new law took effect in August, any building constructed and primarily used for religious worship was exempt from inspection and having to obtain a license, Bogard said. But regulation was inconsistent, particularly when an event occurred in a church but anyone could attend.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, sponsored the "Church Lady Bill" because he said residents from his district complained about regulators showing up at church-related functions and acting "very rude" to the volunteers and threatening to "shut them down in the middle of their event that they had been doing for generations."

"You've got people out here who are volunteers, and we see government for a multitude of reasons overreaching ... in its exercise of regulating people," he said. "And in this case, regulating people out of their volunteerism. Common sense was being violated."

At the same time, Health Department officials can point to outbreaks of sickness at religious events: 16 confirmed outbreaks of foodborne illness connected to faith-based organizations since 2000 in Minnesota. It's likely that there are more cases that have not been reported to the Health Department, Bogard said.

"People in general have an expectation that when they go out to eat, whether it's in a restaurant or a church ... that the food is safe," Bogard said. "Oftentimes, they don't realize in a potluck situation or sometimes at these events that no one is regulating it."

The worst-case scenario

In 2006, Carolyn Hawkinson, 73, died and another woman became seriously ill after eating beef meatballs contaminated with E. coli bacteria at Salem Lutheran Church in Longville, Minn. At least 15 other people also became ill.

Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who represented Hawkinson and the other woman's families, sued meat distributor and slaughterhouse Nebraska Beef Ltd. The company sued the church, pinning the contagion on the church kitchen. Marler's lawsuit against the beef company was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount, while the court dismissed Nebraska Beef's case against the church.

"The hamburger was made into meatballs, and either they were not thoroughly cooked, or when the church ladies were making the meatballs, they cross-contaminated with their hands or on the table with other food items," Marler said. "The outbreak happened because of the introduction of the hamburger into the church supper."

Though Marler thinks it's a good idea for cooks at churches and other faith-based groups to get food preparation training to feed large groups, he cautions that state lawmakers should be careful in carving out exemptions in food safety laws for any group.

"They're exempting churches from oversight, but they're not exempting the churches from liability," he said. "I just think carve-outs of any kind, when it comes to public health, really in the long run doesn't help anybody."

Bogard said the Health Department will police the new training requirement for faith-based groups on a "complaint basis only. We don't have the resources to go around the state."

Churches see the point

Church leaders and cooks like Linda Gregerson don't see the training requirement as onerous if it means making food preparation and serving safer.

"To me, it's going to equalize the field in making sure everyone is more conscious of it," said Gregerson, 64, who's been a volunteer cook at Highview Christiania Lutheran Church in Farmington for nearly three decades. Gregerson was among the group of church ladies who helped cook Saturday's annual "Norwegian Supper," which featured lutefisk, Swedish meatballs and other traditional fare from the old country.

Like Grace Engnell at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Gregerson and another church lady at Highview Christiania will be attending the food-safety workshop Oct. 18.

"I think it's just a good idea to have this be sort of standardized," she said. "With the possibility of foodborne illnesses, I think it's just a wise move to do all that [training]. I can't see that it's going to hurt anything."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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