Another local cooking event casualty

The Watertown Daily Times is reporting this morning that Canton is canceling its 18th annual chili cook-off because it couldn’t comply with state health department regulations.  Organizer Paul Mitchell told the paper:

I told her all the chili was made off-site and brought in to the VFW, and I was told they had a problem with that,” said Mr. Mitchell, who is editor of the St. Lawrence Plaindealer. “In the early years of the cook-off we never worried about interference from the state Health Department. I know DOH is doing their job, but I think this is going a little too far.

Read the complete article here.

Add the chili cook-off to TAUNY’s pea-soup-and-johnnycake event and a chamber of commerce chicken BBQ to the list of events in canton alone that had to be canceled because they couldn’t comply with state health department regulations.

In this story I did about the issue in 2009, the department of health said it’s willing to work with local groups to help them abide by regulations.  But those regs sometimes make the event almost impossible or impractical to hold.

We have a greater understanding about food contamination than ever before, and one poorly cooked dish can make a lot of people very sick.

But community events like these are the bread and butter – pun intended! – of small communities.

What do you think?  When you walk into a local chili cook-off, should you be able to accept responsibility that the food is cooked by amateurs in their own homes and accept the consequences?  Or is the department of health doing a vital public service by protecting people from potentially contaminated food?

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19 Comments on “Another local cooking event casualty”

  1. verplanck says:

    it seems that this would provide the incentive for community groups to not participate with the DOH. What happened to “working with folks”?

    i say they should have done the benefit anyway, and had a donation bin for people to contribute to the fine. This is the type of issue that public scrutiny could force a change on.

    How many people got sick from these types of events, again?

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  2. Brian says:

    Rather than the usual rants against the nanny state, I hope we get some constructive suggestions instead.

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  3. Brian says:

    Personally, when I go to one of these events, I consider it no different than eating dinner in someone else’s home… which of course the DOH doesn’t regulate (yet).

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  4. marcus aurelius says:

    I have followed this issue closely as it goes right to the heart of small town life. Has the Health Department ever provided evidence that these types of activities have harmed people? I have not read a single article about people being sickened by food from a community dinnerin St. Lawrence County. Even more compelling, the informal information network that is also a part of small town life has not produced any anecdotal evidence either.
    The health department needs to start providing data to back up their assertions.

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  5. Mervel says:

    So how busy is the DOH to have time to do this sort of regulation? This would be a certain red flag in times of budget tightening to examine what they do and how many people they really need. It looks to me like a bunch of people who are trying to justify thier existence and they just went too far this time.

    This would be a good one to send to our Gov. to use in one of his speeches about examples of waste.

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  6. Pete Klein says:

    Why do you think those probes are flying over the North Country? The probes are up there working for the DOH, ATF, DEA, and every state and federal agency to spy on Americans.
    Next thing you know, DOH will be breaking into homes to inspect the kitchens. And if they find you giving scraps from the table to your dog, your dog will be executed and you will be put in jail.
    Let Freedom Ring!

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  7. Ellen Rocco says:

    Here’s my brief understanding of how the DOH rules are directly changing community potlucks, cookoffs and similar events:

    If the event is publicized as a public event–open to all–it comes under the strict DOH safety guidelines. If the event is strictly for a closed, membership group, DOH regulations do not apply. I assume this is because they see it as a private event, much as a dinner in your home with guests you’ve invited is a private event.

    The other “exception” to the DOH guidelines is the event that is strictly cookies, brownies, candy etc. I guess because the huge sugar content makes it less likely to cause food poisoning? Not sure.

    In the north country, I believe there was a somewhat serious incident (no deaths but some sickness) after a potluck at a community function in the Plattsburgh area about five or six years ago. (Check out David’s story from last year, link provided in his blog entry above.)

    As a manager of a nonprofit that has used food-based events for years, it came as a real shock to not be able to base an event on donated food from amateur cooks. Even if food is prepared in DOH approved kitchens, there are strict guidelines on presentation and serving practices. It’s a nightmare.

    Bottom line for me: most e-coli, salmonella and similar food poisoning outrbreaks come from the commercially–and DOH approved–food processors and retailers. What is the documented history of severe reactions to potluck food?

    This one truly troubles me because of its impact on the community and food culture of the north country. It has wiped out a truly traditional practice.

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  8. Mervel says:

    One way to get around this is what the bars in Oklahoma hung on to their dry state status into the 80’s. All the bars just became a private clubs, you got your club membership card when you walked in the door to buy a drink. So all you would have to do is advertise to come and join our club for this special potluck event, have them sign a little card when they came in confirming their membership.

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  9. Pete Klein says:

    No, we don’t need private clubs. What we need is civil disobedience.
    If we keep rolling over and playing dead, we might just as well move to Iran and pass our freedoms over to our saintly betters as they do over there.
    Why don’t our elected officials pass some laws to curtail the rules and policies of the DOH?
    You see this going on all over the place – our government protecting us from ourselves.
    You see it with all the rules that prevent things done in the past because the cost of insurance is to high and everyone is afraid of being sued for this that and the other thing.
    I guess live free or die is a joke from the past.

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  10. Lucy Martin says:

    Honestly, THIS is the sort of situation that lead to the old chestnut about “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”.

    The actual risk of getting sick at these events seems pretty small. It’s a gamble I am willing to take and feel entitled to judge for myself.

    Where did this fantasy of 100% safety come from anyway? And why is some mythic vision of sterility worth gutting dearly-loved traditions?

    Breaking bread together…it’s the bedrock of how people connect, as families, as communities. In my view, rules that prevent that are themselves contrary to public good.

    It can’t all be about scary, scary germs folks. A real sense of connection keeps us healthy too.

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  11. Pat McKeown says:

    The St. Lawrence County Chamber took this issue on this week because heavy-handed regulators have no place in North Country life.

    Many of our communities depend on public events for sorely-needed funds. I can cite at least 5 different instances in the past year where the DOH tried – and failed – to shut this Chamber down for some perceived infraction or because we don’t have the correct number of washing tubs on site.

    Even worse than the fines (which are hardly ever levied because civic groups don’t let it get that far) is the harassment good people are subjected to when all they’re trying to do is support their fire departments or their boys-n-girls clubs, or their rescue squads.

    The DOH has suggested that everyone involved in “an event” have training beforehand so they know the rules. This Chamber will hold such a meeting later on, after the winter fests but certainly before the summer chicken things, in order to educate our people about what they can and cannot do..

    No matter — Canton’s chili cookoff is history…Ogdensburg’s chili cook off is history…both as dead as Canton’s chicken bar-b-cue last summer when threats were again made and people recoiled.

    People in our towns and villages just want to have a good time; they just want to get together and push winter away for a while. No one wants to kill anyone; no one wants anyone sick, and I have yet to see any numbers of dead or dying people as a result of chili or chicken or baked beans made here.

    This is just the start. There will be many more community groups that find themselves shut down because they have no “certifiable kitchens” or because they don’t have the required “three sinks.”

    We intend to keep the pressure on the Department of Health and on enforcers who think they can ride roughshod over people. It’s just not the American way…and it certainly is not the North Country way.

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  12. Mervel says:

    So if instead of making chili, if they went out and bought , Doritos’s and vodka it would all be good and of course the Department of HEALTH would approve.

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  13. Mervel says:

    Although a Doritos and Vodka cook off might get more people.

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  14. Valerie says:

    Sort of drives you nuts when the health department stops these kinds of events, yet they seem not overly inspect some of the fast food restaurants with any vigor.

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  15. Pete Klein says:

    I guess if the DOH was around when the Pilgrims and Indians had a plan to share a harvest meal, we would never have had Thanksgiving as a holiday.

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  16. verplanck says:


    Glad to see that the only dishes that have exceptions to them are high-sugar, and presumably high-fat ones. Good thing the health department is looking out for our health!

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  17. Mervel says:

    Just think how bizarre it is though that in our state right now which has major fiscal problems, an agency based in Albany 200 miles away that also monitors NYC the largest city in the United States, and the entire rest of the state; still has enough staff and enough time, to care about an individual chili cook off in a little village of 6000 people.

    This same village is likely going to have to let some teachers go in response to the budget shortfall and huge reductions in state aid.

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  18. Sarah says:

    Early on in these comments, someone stated their hopes in seeing actual constructive ones versus just venting. As a vendor from another County in NYS, who frequently exhibits in Shows of all sizes, and organized by various organizations within St. Lawrence County, I have to say I dread dealing with the local DOH folks there. And, I’m not alone. Friends of mine who live in Vermont have also had issues, and have decided not to participate in Shows in St. Law. Co. any longer.

    While I understand regulations and licensing needs to protect the general public, I’d like someone to explain the blatant inconsistencies in the rules and enforcements from one organization to another, from one town to another, from one County to another.

    In today’s economy, we constantly hear ‘support local’ and ‘buy local’. Organizers of this kind spend countless, tireless hours to give businesses of all shapes and sizes an opportunity to make a little extra money selling their wares.

    Over regulating is far worse than consistent, common-sense regulating. Most vendors want to be in compliance, it’s just a matter of knowing what that means in St. Lawrence County versus everywhere else, USA.

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  19. JackP says:

    I don’t want this help from NYS government and I don’t want to pay for it with my taxes. Cut the DOH budget and lay-off the busybodies who are prosecuting this nonsense. Complain to your state legislators about this waste of public funds.

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