Marshall V. King
Dining A La King
The Elkhart County Health Department announced last week that it stopped two people from selling food that they had made at home.
Luis Alfaro of Goshen was selling tamales out of a cooler in front of 212 N. Main St., Goshen. Someone complained to the health department and on June 15 they stopped him.
Juana Quintero of Elkhart was selling cooked corn and tamales out of a cooler in front of 240 E. Jackson Blvd. Someone complained and on June 21, the health department stopped her.
I love street food. Had I seen either of these people selling tamales, I would have probably bought some.
But I would have assumed that it came with a bit of risk since it was essentially a black market product.
I’m willing to do that. But not everyone is.
But after a blog post on the topic, readers on the Dining A La King Facebook page raised the question of what’s legal and what’s not in Elkhart County.
And Karla Kreczmer, manager of the environmental health division of the health department, gets that question two to three times a week.
And if you ask her, she can give you answers filled with chemistry and legal jargon. But that’s her job. The information is also on the health department’s website.
It’s not legal to make tamales on your home stove and sell them along the street. It may be in other locales in the United States or other countries, but it’s not in Elkhart County.
“The tamales are a potentially hazardous product,” said Kreczmer.
What’s that mean?
The food has “potential to support bacterial growth” and you have to keep it below 41 degrees or above 135 degrees to prevent that. That’s usually food with meat, eggs or dairy.
Can I sell stuff I bake at home?
Yes. Under Indiana law and Elkhart County rules, you can. “When you take cake batter or cookie dough and you bake that, it changes the chemical property of the product, rendering it non-potentially hazardous,” she said.
So I can sell anything I bake?
Nope. Not custard, cream pies or food with cream cheese frosting, she said. It has to do with pH and water activity.
Are there rules about where I can sell stuff I bake at home?
Yep. You can sell at a roadside stand or farmers market. Or people can pick items up at your house, but you can’t deliver them, she said. And they have to be labeled, including that they’re made in an uninspected facility. By the way, I ended up eating way more cupcakes than I expected because in Cupcake Quest I allowed home bakers to compete and didn’t realize how many there are.
What about church bake sales?
They’re a different story, she said. State law lets churches and their members bake and sell anything they want as long as the money goes to the organization. So she can’t regulate them and if you’re at a potluck or bake sale, you’re on your own.
What about other non-profits?
Kreczmer can’t regulate them much either, but the exemption is only for 15 days a year. She asks that organizations register events, in case she gets calls. At the Elkhart County 4-H Fair, she and her staff can’t demand to inspect a non-profit’s food booth, but most of them allow it and listen to the inspectors’ advice.
So what about these food trucks that are hip and hot in other communities?
They’re slowly coming to Elkhart County. Elkhart County has had mobile catering trucks for years, but the new breed of food trucks where cooking happens in the truck also need to have a licensed commissary as a base of operations somewhere, she said.
Why does the county enforce the rules so strictly when not all communities do?
Kreczmer said she can’t speak for what other communities do. “We just want to make sure they are following the same rules,” she said. “We also want to make sure people don’t get sick.”
Food poisoning isn’t fun. And I’ve gotten sick in other countries from eating things others wouldn’t have. But I’ve understood the risk as I ate.
The health department has some responsibility to make sure the rules are fair and that people abide by them. Our health department is strict compared to others and yet I also know that its employees work to educate and help restaurant owners and those who want to sell food following the rules.
I’d buy a tamale from someone on the street. But our health department officials will act uniformly and fairly. That’s less of a problem than if inspectors weren’t being ethical or making everyone play by them the same way.
Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 574-296-5805, via Twitter @hungrymarshall or the Dining A La King Facebook page. His blog is at blogs.etruth.com/diningalaking.