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October 21, 2014

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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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  1. As one who was involved in the food industry for more than 20 years - from dishwasher to restaurant owner - I couldn't disagree with Curtas more. They don't do a "great" job; they do an unnecessary job. One that could be done better by the private sector. As you see in this case, they are obstinate and uneven in their enforcement of the rules. One bureaucratic drone interprets the rules one way and another bureaucratic drone comes along and says it's just the opposite. Over the years, I found health "inspectors" who made up the rules as they went along and, if they didn't like you or your operation, could drive you up a wall. If the system were privatized and insurance made mandatory, much like auto insurance, restaurant operators could avoid personality conflicts by changing insurers. Not so under the present set up which gives bureaucratic drones far too much power and can lead to corruption and under the table payoffs. The inspection of restaurants would fall to the insurers who wouldn't take kindly to sloppy, dirty and/or unhealthful practices by restaurateurs and would drop their coverage in a heartbeat, putting them out of business. The public would be safer and better off without the bureaucratic drones and we'd have a freer society, too boot!

  2. Everyone in the food industry has a story about heath inspectors. Heath inspectors are necessary, we need them. However, sometimes and in many cases, health inspectors can be over reaching.

    Laura and Monte Bledsoe did everything right is seems except they did not contact the health department or get local officials involved. In the end the health department did the right thing.

    The Bledsoes should reschedule this event, include the health department to ensure success. Great ideal Bledsoe, did it again, now you know what is needed.

  3. Overton is an unincorporated city, 67 miles from Las Vegas, about $28 round trip at 20 mpg, and another $28 in mileage and depreciation if the car is less than two years old.

    People that drive to these events from Las Vegas are well versed in farm food events and know their way around. People that drive to them from Overton know their way around even better. Fresh means fresh, not irradiated or kept under UV lamps.

    The Overton population is about 3700. There are many churches in Las Vegas with bigger congregations, and what happens when food poisoning occurs at a church function? They get prayers. Overton is mostly LDS anyway - a public event out there is nearly the same as a church event and very few people could tell the two apart.

    The biggest attraction in Overton is the road out of town in the direction of Las Vegas. One of the residents suggested putting up a Welcome sign but they couldn't get enough cash together for the paint and plywood and the shovels to dig the post holes were all in use on farms.

    A Las Vegas restaurant inspector has no business at Overton Farm-Food events. These are two entirely different worlds. A farm-food event in Ely, Elko, Winnemucca or any other small town is the same as that in Overton, except that the Las Vegas restaurant inspector doesn't drive out to Ely to mess things up, and their average life span in Ely doesn't give them enough time for inspections.

    How does one get a USDA Certified inspector to come out to the farm and check the meat? That's nonsense. Sent a priest out to bless it instead - priests are affordable, government inspectors aren't. Call it a Faith-Based Farm Food event and then government inspections won't apply. After all, how does one certify Faith? With a towel?

    "Vegetables declared unfit?" By what standard? This is "proof by assertion" and no specifics are given. Room temperature, fresh, cooked, half cooked, partially cooked or overdone vegetables can sit for hours and never spoil. What is an unfit vegetable? How is that measured? Maybe if they sat out all day and night by the side of the road they would be unfit but that wasn't the case.

    If the vegetables are unfit, give them back to the owners - there is NO JUSTIFICATION for pouring chlorine on them. That is DISGUSTING. A waste of good food for a picky inspector trying to justify his time.

    And how much did his time cost? More than all the food at the event. That is what is unfit - not the food.

  4. "Until the law is changed, LaBay said, "We don't have an option."

    A private dinner on private property, yet a health cop showed up. Did he have a warrant? Did anybody mention to the fool he was trespassing? Somehow respect for private property has been completely lost in LaBay's and his itty bit o' government's desperate quest for relevance. Pathetic!

    "A Las Vegas restaurant inspector has no business at Overton Farm-Food events."

    SunJon -- great post, as usual, especially the way you detailed the way this inspector overreached.

    Look at the other headlines and editorials in today's Suns about the lack of jobs. This is one huge reason why. I recall seeing stories here and there about kids' lemonade stands being shut down and fined.

    "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from your government. I'm here to help.'" -- the late President Ronald Reagan

  5. The Joe's, Killer's, and Jerry's of the world could learn something here:
    http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseasein...
    but they won't.

  6. I've been in the restaurant business for many years and I agree with Coolican and many of the posters. While health inspectors perform a necessary function, they tend to be arbitrary and inconsistent. They also seem not to have had much experience in the food industry prior to becoming inspectors, which makes them more difficult to deal with.
    We have been overdue for an inspection, and now I know why - the short-staffed health department is chasing after farmers in Overton.

  7. What a shame. Sounds like it would be a cool dinner to try.

  8. In the City of Sin, and everywhere else food is consumed for mass public consumption, we need health inspectors, even if the 'system' is somewhat flawed.

    That said, this was a reach beyond reason.
    There's something fishy here; I smell a RAT.

    What a waste of a perfectly good spread! Now, THAT'S sinful.

  9. "The Joe's, Killer's, and Jerry's of the world could learn something here..."

    mschaffer -- exactly which part of "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable seizures and searches shall not be violated" do you need explained to you? YOU could learn something @ http://www.leg.state.nv.us/Const/NVConst...

    Government harassment like this is a major deterrent from anyone starting a company and creating jobs. Why do we put up with it -- just so parasites like LaBay can suck on the public teat? Not good enough!

    "I heartily accept the motto, 'That government is best which governs least'; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically." -- Henry David Thoreau 1849 "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience"

  10. I agree with the article, it's an incredible display of bureaucracy and small mindedness.

    But I do have to take issue with the writers statement about the govm't putting a man on the moon and inventing the internet. First, while NASA was funded by the gov, it was run as a "cowboy" (what in reality was an entrepreneurial) organization; a true gov entity (think "EPA") would never have achieved the goal. And as the internet industries liason to Congress in the mid-90's, I can tell you flat out it was invented by dedicated academics (with both gov and corporate grant money, but no oversight or involvement by the funders) and created by venture capital funded entreprenuers; my task, along with many others, was helping keep the govm't out of the internet (successfully, thank god).

    Yes, the gov can do some amazing things, as Jefferson and FDR showed. And it can faciliate amazing things by simply staying out of the way, as Franklin, Reagan and Clinton showed. So lets not get carried away here and start giving credit where it's simply not due.

  11. Chunky says:

    This is the problem with "Biggie Sized" government and those who trust any form or branch of it to do anything sensibly and with common sense.

    The govt should stick with infrastructure and defense and stay out of our personal lives!

    You only need to look at the Social Security mess to decide if you want them managing your healthcare and retirement!

    That's what Chunky thinks!

  12. I would not call for the end of the health department. But I would definitely call for more training for the employees of the health department. Have they never heard of the time and temperature principal? More then likely this events food sanitation was more safe for consumption then anywhere on the strip.

  13. I'm with Wondering on this one, especially due to my experiences farming, ranching, and having food centered events both in California and Nevada.

    It all could have simply been changed, had the government inspector been reasonable,"...the only reason that the farm needed health dept over site is because they posted it as a supper club event. If it had been a dinner event it is considered a private event and would not have needed a permit. Thus NO health dept intervention."

    For years, I grew organically raised food: fruits, vegetables, nuts, and livestock. Not once, was there ever an incident with my food. There was plenty of repeat business and referrals.

    It is truly unfortunate the parties involved were unable to adjust the status, considering the actual intent with the Bledsoes. This instance will send shockwaves throughout rural Nevada, creating an underground (which is counter productive to food safety) and hinder transparency with food producers. Common sense should have prevailed, but unfortunately did not. What a pity!

  14. "...do me a favor, google Asparatame and Splenda together."

    buttercup3381 -- take it to the next level with the FDA's war against stevia. And they still won't allow that beneficial, time-tested sweetener it in our food, while aspartame, etc., passes.

    Back to what Reagan said...

  15. killer,
    You can't be secure in your home or possessions when suffering from food borne illness. Health comes first and you are always dependent upon others for your food and water. If you think you can detect food borne pathogens you are a fool.

  16. Be careful J. Patrick...your Ayn Rand is showing.

  17. "It's said that a picture is worth a thousand words. A video is even better."

    tarantula -- thanx with extra cheese (non-USDA-approved) for that link.

    My hope is all those attending the Bledsoe's event burned up the phone lines and emails to their legislators and county commissioners about this incident. Fascists like these food cops need to be put on the street with the rest of us scratching for their daily bread with the rest of us.

    "Indifference to personal liberty is but the precursor of the State's hostility to it." -- United States v. Penn, 647 F.2d 876 (9th Circuit, 1980), Judge Kennedy dissenting

  18. "Except for abortion and gay marriage yes?"

    Markey -- I hope you threw that in only as a provocateur. The same fundamental principle applies -- the Bill of Rights promises each of us a private realm where government has no business intruding into, yet it does in this ever-expanding police state. Part of that is our property boundaries. In this context if the Bledsoes had set up a restaurant open to the public then the public authorities would have a compelling interest in their offerings. This is more akin to a garage sale requiring permits and inspection.

    "The Health District employee was doing her job!!! As dictated by the Federal Government! If you want to make a change...get rid of the people in power and vote them out of office, not blame an inspector like Ms Oakes."

    Sinatra -- no and yes. Ms. Oakes represented the County, not the state nor federal government. Shooing off the camera when confronted by the media while just "doing her job!!!" speaks volumes of her abuse of authority. Ultimately your cure for this kind of situation is sound, the part people often forget -- these food cops were enforcing laws not passed in a vacuum and it's up to us to rein them in.

    "Fear is the foundation of most governments." - John Adams "Thoughts on Government" (1776)

  19. I do believe the tide has changed, and the political pendulum is swinging in the direction of greater liberty and freedom relative to people earning a living. The regulations that appear to be in fact a government run protection racket have diverted from the noble cause of the safety of the public to one where we are under a PAY TO PLAY political and business power game. I do recall an interesting story many years past, it is worth the read to refresh our resolve the end the problem: http://www.reviewjournal.com/lvrj_home/2...

  20. What makes J. Patrick Coolican think the experience of Quail Hollow Farms is especially unique. Does he think oil companies, sheet metal manufactures, and fast food restaurants don't face out of control regulators? Or does he approve of expanding government power because he believes the company HE works for and the enterprises HE approves will be spared? (Or should be?)

    He is writing this article as if he thinks the corporation known as Quail Hollow Farms is PEOPLE or something. Crazy.