By Lillian Shirley, RN, MPH, MPA, Multnomah County Health Department DirectorPortland, OR — When Rand Wallace looked through the refrigerator stuffed with flavorful ingredients for tamales, he knew there was a problem. He checked his thermometer and made a note. Wallace was in the catering kitchen of the Baltazar Ortiz Community Center in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood. An environmental health specialist with the Multnomah County Health Department, he was there on a routine inspection.
That day, his inspection revealed that the food production of the Micro Mercantes program of Hacienda Community Development Corporation (CDC) had outgrown the kitchen’s capacity to safely cool and store what the participants were making. After the inspection, Wallace worked with Hacienda staff to help them understand what they needed in order to properly cool and store their products.
“The participants were producing so many tamales to meet the demand, they were really victims of their own success,” he says.
Wallace didn’t know it at the time, but that inspection not only led to a new walk-in cooler for the catering kitchen, it also led to an innovative and important new partnership between Hacienda CDC and the Health Department.
In early April, the Micro Mercantes program and the health department joined forces for the first time to train tamale vendors in safe food preparation, handling, and storage. Ten participants went from one station to another learning everything from setting up hand-washing facilities, to avoiding cross-contamination, to safe heating and cooling of their products — all measures required by law and necessary to keeping their food safe for the public to eat.
Wallace, along with co-workers Lisa Matos and Michael McLuckie — all trained Environmental Health Specialists — provided the training in Spanish. They also helped participants fill out required temporary license applications.
“I really liked being able to speak to people in their own language and help them get on board with how they need to operate, why they need to do it and what to expect when we come for an inspection,” McLuckie says.
Hacienda’s Micro Mercantes program is a three-year microenterprise program that helps immigrant families establish their own small businesses. The program provides both training and mentoring to interested community members. Participants operate booths at local farmers’ markets and special events, offer catering services, and eventually get help striking out on their own.
“The biggest barriers [for participants] are language and understanding the rules and regulations that we have in this country,” says Caitlin Burke, economic development specialist with Hacienda. “This kind of training is so empowering. It’s really breaking down barriers.” She adds that the training helped participants understand that the rules are there for a reason — to protect the public health.
Wallace, Matos, and McLuckie agree that people often don’t know what environment health specialists do or why they do it. If food is not properly handled, they explain, it can make people very ill from food borne illnesses. Food borne illnesses are caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals, or toxins that get into or grow in our food. They cause symptoms like nausea, cramps, diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. In the most severe cases, they can cause paralysis or even death.
“A lot of what we do in the field is education,” Wallace says.
All three say that their confidence as food safety inspectors is rooted in science. For example, one principle that they taught in the Hacienda training and reinforce in their inspections is the need to keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
Currently by law, cold food must be kept below 41 degrees and hot food must be kept above 140 degrees.
“Off temperature food can grow bacteria. You can reheat it up all the way to the proper temperature and it will kill the bacteria, but the toxins that some bacteria produce are not killed or deactivated by heat,” says Matos. And when that happens, people get sick.
“We have the safest food supply in the world.” Wallace says of food in the United States.
In the last 100 years, life expectancy in this country has increased by 30 years. The improvement can largely be attributed to safer food and safe drinking water supplies.
Multnomah County Health Department employs 21 environmental health specialists and in 2011 they inspected nearly 15,000 establishments. Along with permanent and temporary food establishments, they also inspect lodging, RV and organizational camps, pools and spas, schools, child care facilities, adult foster care, correctional facilities, and small drinking water systems.
The environmental health team notes that they appreciated the opportunity to make a connection with the community and provide training through Hacienda.
“It’s a lot more fun to help up front than to be enforcers,” McLuckie says. “We like being a resource to the community. We made a lot of connections and now we’ll know people when we see them in the field.”
Burke, who works with the Micro Mercantes program, says that participants appreciated it too. “It helped make a personal connection for vendors with the health department. Now when they see inspectors out in the field they’ll think: ‘The health inspector is here to work with me,’” she says.
Hacienda CDC and the health department are already beginning to plan for next year’s group of vendors. Each is looking forward to expanding the training to include different kinds of food and more vendors, as well as to helping emerging small business owners understand safe food practices.
To learn more about Multnomah County Environmental Health go to www.mchealthinspect.org. For more about Hacienda CDC and their Micro Mercantes program go to www.haciendacdc.org or micromercantes.com.