Beware of Internet lumpia. And Facebook tamales. And Craigslist sausage rolls.
And myriad other food products bought and sold on the foodie black market.
Tacoma Pierce County Health Department officials have seen a steady increase in unlicensed food businesses cropping up on Facebook, Craigslist and other pockets of the Internet. Social media provide a channel for unlicensed businesses to operate under the radar and outside the reach of the Health Department.
With food safety month here, officials from the Health Department are beefing up their online presence and alerting the public on the ins and outs of licensed food businesses.
Amanda Peters, an environmental health specialist with the Health Department, answered a few questions about those clandestine food companies and what they mean for public health.
Q: Why is it so hard to find these lumpia and tamale outlaws?
A: Many of them operate through buy/sell/trade groups through Facebook. Some of them have their settings set as private. Some of them have thousands of members.
Q: I take it the folks who are unlicensed don’t return Health Department phone calls?
A: Sometimes I get lucky when they post a phone number and I can have a conversation. Sometimes they thank me for having the conversation because they don’t know what they’re doing is illegal. There is that percentage out there that know what they’re doing is illegal. They don’t use their phone numbers because they know they’re not operating legally.
Q: So the health department plans to have more social media presence to track them?
A: Yes. We’ll be able to contact them and track them.
Q: Why are all these food makers suddenly cropping up?
A: I think it’s always been there, but the biggest jump happened when the economy dipped down and people were stuck at home and needed a creative way to make money, and someone told them they were good at making tamales and they decided to try it. But they didn’t get a permit or follow any of the procedures to do that properly.
Q: And how harmful can those folks be who don’t have the proper permits to operate a food business?
A: With a tamale operation, for instance, when you do tamales, you are making large quantities of food. First, you cook the meat filling, then you cool it. You don’t roll them when they’re really hot. They have to cool. And who is to know if they’re cooling and storing properly? You’re doing large-scale cooking and cooling in a home, but you don’t have the luxury of a walk-in cooler to cool it properly. It sits on the counter and it stays in the danger zone too long, bacteria grows and people get sick.
Q: Are you seeing an increase in foodborne illness as a result of unlicensed businesses?
A: That’s tough to say. Some people may get the same thing, but it affects them totally in different ways, so it’s tough to track and often goes unreported.
Q: What changes when the health department gets involved with a food business?
A: It’s the inspection process. That’s what makes this so critical. The thing we have to focus on here at the health department is educating people in our county that you need to make sure the food you’re purchasing is approved, licensed, inspected and safe. The last thing you want is to buy some food off Facebook, feed it to your family, and then wind up in the hospital with E. coli.
Q: So businesses making food such as tamales and lumpia need a health department permit, but folks who have a cottage foods permit from the Washington State Department of Agriculture don’t? Is that right?
A: Sure. Those (cottage) businesses are making shelf-stable products, which are baked goods that don’t have to keep a certain temperature for safety. Those are cakes, cupcakes, breads, certain jams and jellies, but there can’t be anything that has to be kept hot or cold. (Find the guidelines at agr.wa.gov/foodanimal/cottagefoodoperation.)
Q: How does someone figure out if the person they’re buying from is properly permitted through the health department?
A: Ask questions. Ask for permit numbers. You can always contact the health department.