02/18/09 — Health officials: Be wary of illegal catering

View Archive

Health officials: Be wary of illegal catering

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 18, 2009 1:46 PM

Wayne County health officials are warning residents that when they hire someone to provide food at an event, cutting corners might not be the safest idea.

The Wayne County Health Department say caterers without credentials could mean trouble for an organization -- especially in light of recent food concerns.

"With all the recalls we're seeing -- salmonella from peanut butter, last year it was spinach -- food-borne illnesses are a concern," said Shane Smith, the department's food and lodging supervisor.

When it's time for a big celebration, it's not uncommon for people to seek outside help for that family or office event, Smith said. But they need to be careful about whom they get to prepare the food.

"Let's face it, we are all strapped for time these days and a little help in the kitchen is always appreciated," he said. "It could be as simple as roast beef and a few vegetables for a family reunion or as elaborate as a four-course meal for a wedding reception. Any food prepared for a fee and served to people outside of a food service establishment is considered catering."

Smith's office regulates restaurants and eating establishments. There's a reason for that, he said -- in the event of any problem, liability can be more easily traced.

So these days, when people might be looking for a quick and easy way to make some extra money, selling food out of their house or out of a truck is probably not the best answer.

"There's not a week goes by that someone doesn't ask that question," Smith said. "It's not regulated -- the foods or kitchens are not regulated. It's completely different from any type of restaurant, and also the food has to come from an approved source."

Faced with such possible outcomes as food poisoning or food-borne illnesses, caution is advised, he said.

"You cannot see or taste viruses like norovirus or bacteria such as E. coli that may cause a food-borne outbreak. That is why it is important to trust who is preparing your food," Smith said.

Smith noted an example of what can happen when an illegal caterer is called upon to provide food for a large gathering. At Christmas in the western part of the state, at least 43 people were sickened in a norovirus outbreak that spilled over into several counties, he noted.

"These people were served food from an illegal caterer that was operating out of (his) home at a Christmas party," Smith said.

Food-borne illnesses account for more than 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States, according to the Food Protection Branch in the state's Division of Environmental Health.

"All caterers must be licensed and permitted in the state of North Carolina in order to comply with all health code requirements," Smith said. "Each permitted caterer is inspected up to four times a year, based on the risk potential for food-borne illness. Any caterer that does not obtain the proper permit from a local health department and has not been inspected, would therefore be operating illegally."

There are some basic questions to ask before hiring someone: Are you permitted? What's your permit number? Where is your food coming from?

When in doubt, Wayne residents are urged to call Smith's office at 731-1174.

"By taking the time to check into your caterer you will be doing the people attending your event a great service as well as saving yourself liability in the instance that a problem may arise," he said.