With schools across the country facing budget cuts, it is inevitable that well-meaning school supporters will be out in full force this year, organizing bake sales, spaghetti dinners, and other food-based fundraisers to help fund anything from new uniforms for sports teams to senior trips.  Organizers of such events should check local food safety regulations before delving in since laws regulating the sale of homemade food products vary from state to state and even from county to county.  

Last spring organizers of church fundraisers in Pennsylvania learned that serving homemade pies at events was not allowed after food inspectors cracked down.  According to Pennsylvania health regulations, “Food prepared in a private home can only be used if that facility is licensed/registered and inspected by the department.”  

The regulation was added to Pennsylvania food code in 2003.

When Homemade Food Sickens

On November 21 2001, the Prospect School in Robeson County, North Carolina, held a Thanksgiving Feast during school hours.  Among the items served to the students and others at the school at the Thanksgiving feast was homemade, unpasturized butter.

In the days and weeks following the feast, numerous students began showing symptoms of E. coli O157:H7.

By years end, 26 people linked to Prospect elementary school had tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.  Almost 200 people reported experiencing symptoms of E. coli infection when interviewed by public health officials.

An intensive epidemiological study by local, state and federal health officials revealed that the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak was the result of consumption of the homemade butter brought into the school for the Thanksgiving feast.

Outbreak at a church dinner

An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak among members of the Salem Lutheran Church congregation was traced to ground beef served at a July 19, 2006 smorgasbord dinner at the church, located in Longville, Minnesota.  

The Minnesota Departments of Health and Agriculture investigated the E. coli outbreak, and identified 17 people who had become ill with E. coli infections after eating food at the church dinner.  Three developed hemolytic uremic syndrome; one woman died as a result of her E. coli infection.  

A trace-back investigation by the Department of Agriculture revealed that the ground beef had been produced by Nebraska Beef and sold at a Supervalu store.  

A Fundraiser Gone Bad

In September of 2008, officials from Butte County Public Health (BCPH) announced that an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak had been linked to the consumption of tri-tip served at a charity event in Forest Ranch, California on September 6, 2008.   

Through an outbreak investigation, BCPH identified at least 27 fundraiser attendees who had become ill with E. coli infection in the days following the event.  Four were hospitalized due to the severity of their symptoms, one for ten days with hemolytic uremic syndrome.

BCPH has not yet released information regarding the source of the tri-tip.

Why check your local food code?

These outbreaks are not isolated incidents.  Bill Chirdon, director of the Bureau of Food Safety and Laboratory Services at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture explained the reasoning behind Pennsylvania’s regulations in an April issue of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.  “One-third of all food-borne illnesses come from private fundraisers,” he said.