Festival of Flavours wrapped in red tape
VANKLEEK HILL - Have no fear, the annual Festival of Flavours will proceed as planned.
The fate of the popular festival, which is set to take place on Sunday, September 23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., was on shaky ground up until recently.
Organizer Phil Arber explained that this year, the festival was asked to comply with a number of "very strict regulations" imposed by the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU).
"Last year, we operated under a format similar to a farmers' market," he explained to The Review last week. "Because of that, we didn't have any strict regulations imposed on us. At the end of the festival last year, the EOHU said we couldn't operate as a farmers' market, so we became subject to a number of pretty wild regulations. This has been ongoing since February so it's been six months of discussions with the EOHU and trying to come up with a compromise."
The festival is well-known for the numerous vendors that participate and showcase their foods in downtown Vankleek Hill, with dishes from India, Jamaica, Holland, England, Thailand, Germany, Switzerland and more.
There is also plenty of locally-produced products, herbs and spices, jams, jellies and deserts and of course, the ever-popular 320-foot lunch table on Main Street.
Last year's festival brought more than 6,000 food lovers to Vankleek Hill.
Arber noted there are three main issues, the first of which is food preparation.
"The health unit is very concerned about when, where and how the food is prepared," Arber said. "Of course, we totally understand that. I want it made clear that food and public safety is a number one priority for us and we're not trying to cut any corners here. We want to make sure everyone who comes to the festival can enjoy the top-quality food they've come to expect."
The issue, Arber went on, is that the health unit wants vendors to prepare their foods in a kitchen that has been approved by inspectors. The EOHU-approved kitchens in Vankleek Hill are located at Knox Presbyterian Church, the Vankleek Hill fairgrounds at the Vankleek Hill Community Centre.
"The EOHU wants all the vendors who are preparing dishes to do so in one of these approved kitchens," he commented. "The health unit says they have no way of monitoring the kitchen of someone who works out of their home. The problem here is, not all vendors are prepared to pack up all their stuff and bring it to one of these kitchens to prepare the food. It's very onerous, not to mention there is a fee, albeit a small one, to use these kitchens."
The second issue, Arber outlined, is in regard to food service and sanitation. He said the EOHU wants festival organizers to ensure all vendors along the 1,600-foot main street have 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.
"First of all, that's a pretty tall order," Arber stated. "Second of all, not all vendors are preparing food."
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.
"A vendor may have the go-ahead to prepare and sell food in Quebec, but those approvals don't go across the border," Arber remarked. "Since 45 per cent of our vendors are from Quebec, you can imagine what a stress that places on us and the vendors themselves. Those vendors would be required, by law, to prepare their food in an EOHU-approved kitchen."
Arber said festival organizers wrote to Glengarry-Prescott-Russell MPP Grant Crack to express their concerns and met with Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, chief medical officer of health with the EOHU, to try and come up with a solution.
He said an agreement has been reached on two of the three issues.
"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.
The only issue that has not been resolved is the requirement to prepare food in an EOHU-approved kitchen. Arber said the health unit is remaining steadfast that those preparing food must do so in a kitchen that has been approved by health unit officials.
"I'm not sure what we can about this," he said. "Like I said, I totally agree with public safety and food safety. It's essential and it's something you can't take lightly. But this is a lot of red-tape and some of these requirements are a bit ridiculous."
Arber said the Festival of Flavours not only helps vendors by giving them a place to sell their products, it also boosts the local economy. He said if the regulations prove too onerous, many vendors may simply decide not to participate in the festival at all.
"Things are moving ahead now, but it's possible some vendors will find these regulations too onerous," Arber remarked. "The health unit doesn't see the economic impact this festival has on the community and really, it's not their concern. I know they are just doing their job, but it makes a lot more difficult for us in the end."
Food safety is a must
Caroline Kuat, food safety program co-ordinator with the EOHU, told The Review that public safety is "the number one concern for the health unit." She said the health unit has been working with organizers to try and "make everyone happy" but it's her job to make sure people leave the Festival of Flavours with good memories, not food poisoning.
"The reality is, incidents of food poisoning are increasing," she said during an interview last week. "When people get food poisoning, they can very, very sick and it's dangerous. We don't want to close any festivals or events down, but we want to ensure all safety precautions are taken so people don't get sick."
Kuat said festivals like the Festival of Flavours can be difficult to monitor because they feature food preparation in a "non-traditional" setting.
"This is why extra precautions need to be taken," she explained. "We're not talking about preparing food in a kitchen or restaurant setting. This is taking place on a street so we need to be extra vigilant."
Kuat said when it comes to Quebec vendors, the EOHU can be strict with its regulations. She said the health unit can verify that Ontario vendors meet its standards, but it has no way to verify Quebec vendors.
"The approvals they receive in Quebec don't mean much here," she stated. "We have no idea what they are doing or how they are handling and storing their food. This is why we've agreed to approach each Quebec vendor individually. This way, we can verify that they meet the standards we have in place."
When it comes to insisting that some vendors prepare their dishes in an EOHU-approved kitchen, Kuat said the health unit can't inspect home kitchens and needs to ensure food is prepared in a facility that meets its strict standards.
"It's all a matter of public safety," she reiterated. "We don't want people to get sick. We want people to go to the festival and have a good time. That's why these regulations and standards are in place."