Festival of Flavours says it will compromise with EOHU
If a booth had a sign hanging from it that said the food being served could be "potentially hazardous," would you throw caution to the wind and eat the food anyway?
It's highly unlikely that you would and that's exactly what Phil Arber, organizer of the hugely-popular Festival of Flavours, is worried about.
"We've been working with the health unit on this for more than six months now and though some compromises have been reached, we're still in a tough spot," Arber told The Review during an interview last week. "We're trying to work with them but honestly, it's been tough.
Arber said he received a letter from Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the EOHU, stating that while the health unit was willing to compromise on some regulations, it remained steadfast in its requirement that vendors preparing food must do so in a kitchen that has been approved by health unit officials.
The Review attempted to reach Roumeliotis for a comment, but was told he was on holidays. Instead, The Review spoke to Caroline Kuate, food safety program co-ordinator with the EOHU.
Kuate said the law requires that vendors must prepare their food in a health unit-approved kitchen if they want to be able to sell it during the festival. If vendors can't or don't want to do that, they will have to place signs on their booths that state the food they are selling is "potentially hazardous" and display the sign in a prominent location.
"This is the law," Kuate stated. "We work with many festivals and events in regard to food safety and I don't think we've ever been in the news this much. We've never had this much of an issue. This is the first time we've encountered a situation like this."
Kuate said the public has a right to know how and where the food they are consuming was prepared. If vendors don't want to follow the law, she said, they need to let the public know the food was prepared in a location not inspected or approved by the EOHU.
"Basically, those vendors need to let people know they are eating at their own risk," she explained. "This is not the only festival of its kind and we've never had trouble with compliance. We've been trying to work with festival organizers and reach a compromise. In the area of food preparation, this is the compromise. The most important thing is public safety."
The EOHU-approved kitchens in Vankleek Hill are located at Knox Presbyterian Church, the Vankleek Hill fairgrounds at the Vankleek Hill Community Centre.
"Signs go to far" - Arber
Arber said public safety is a "number one priority" for festival organizers, but noted it's small business, like "mom and pop" operations, that will be hurt by the "in your face" signage.
"Of course, the festival caters to all types of vendors, but we're really trying to help the mom and pop type of businesses," he said. "They are the ones who will be hurt by this because they're going to have to put up those crazy signs."
Arber said there is no way to put a positive spin on a sign that states the food vendors selling could be "potentially hazardous" to your health.
"How many vendors are going to want to put those signs up?" Arber exclaimed. "Signs like that would devastate the festival's reputation and the reputation of the vendors."
Last year the Festival of Flavours brought more than 6,000 food-lovers to Vankleek Hill and Arber said organizers won't settle for anything less this year.
"We blew people out of the water last year," he said. "What's the point of proceeding if we can't at least match last year's success? We don't want to have a festival where Main Street is practically bare because many vendors decided not to come."
Arber said vendors won't be hanging the signs because putting up such signage is not one of the options given to vendors as part of their contract with the festival.
"The option is to either prepare the food in a health unit-approved kitchen or don't," Arber said. "If vendors don't want to do that, I guess we have to accept that some won't come. But we are not going to put the festival or the health of the public in jeopardy. We know some vendors won't like it, but this is the way it has to be."
As for the festival itself, Arber said it is proceeding as planned on Sunday, September 23.
"We're going fill Main Street with vendors and people and we're going to host a festival everyone, including the EOHU, can be happy with," he stated.
Despite being frustrated, Arber understands the health unit is just doing its job and said public safety in paramount when it comes to food.
"Is this fair?" Arber asked. "For the mom and pop places, no it's not. For the public, yes it is because they shouldn't have to wonder if the food their eating is safe or not. I see both sides, but as a festival organizer, it's frustrating."
Small steps forward
Arber said he was pleased organizers and the EOHU were able to reach a compromise on two other issues.
In regard to food service and sanitation., the EOHU wanted festival organizers to ensure all vendors along the 1,600-foot main street had access to hot water for cleaning tools used to prepare food and hand-washing. The health unit also wanted organizers to ensure there was a receptacle for gray water and stressed that water used to clean tools and wash hands cannot be dumped on the street.
The third and final issue, Arber said, involved vendors from Quebec. The health unit said although a vendor from Quebec may meet that province's standards when it comes to food safety, those approvals don't count in Ontario.
"Instead of providing hot water to every vendor, the health unit agreed to allow vendors to bring in their own water dispenser of cold water so they can wash their items and hands," he said. "They also need to have soap and paper towels on hand as well."
As for the restrictions on vendors from Quebec, Arber said the health unit has agreed to contact each vendor and review provincial approvals on an individual basis."If the vendors are able to provide all the information the health unit wants, then the health unit will approve those vendors on an individual basis," he said.