This time last year, Minnesota public health officials found themselves in the path of a political tornado – a classic clash between government and religion. Thousands of church leaders and others around the state had been alerted that the state was imposing new health standards on church potlucks and bake sales – what became known as Minnesota’s “Church Lady Law.”
And some thought it was government overreach. “If churches have to get a permit for a potluck or a lutefisk supper, what’s next?” asked a newspaper columnist. “A requirement that parishioners wear rubber gloves when sharing the peace?”
Who would disagree? But the tea party outrage turned out to be a classic tempest in a teapot, a political tantrum based on bad information.
Minnesota had no desire to regulate church potlucks, but it public health experts were trying to help churches deal with larger events that are susceptible to foodborne illness. “We’d had these requirements for years, but people weren’t aware of it,” explains Deborah Durkin, a planner and educator for the state Department of Health.
What people needed was information. And now, a year later, hundreds of Minnesota “church ladies” have been trained in food safety as part of a compromise “church lady law” passed by the state legislature last summer.
Most states studiously avoid any regulation of church potlucks and bake sales – for obvious reasons. Dr. Kirk Smith, chief epidemiologist for the highly respected Minnesota state health department, grew up in rural North Dakota, so he understands the role fried chicken, spaghetti dinners and green Jello potlucks play in American culture.
“I’ve been to a million of those dinners,” he says, and he has neither the desire nor the manpower to regulate kitchens at some 10,000 churches across the state.
But Smith also knows that church dinners can make people sick. And that usually happens when the Sunday afternoon potluck grows into something far bigger – fundraisers designed to attract hundreds of people.
None of this is hypothetical. Like other states, Minnesota has a history of mini-epidemics traced to church events. In 2006, some 300 people showed up for a smorgasbord at the Salem Lutheran Church in Longville, a lakeside town in northern Minnesota that could have been the inspiration for Garrison Kielor’s Lake Wobegon.
At least 17 people were sickened with E. coli traced to undercooked meatballs.Three developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and a 73-year-old woman died.
Similar outbreaks, small and large, occur every year. In 2007, 20 were sickenened after a church festival that drew more than 1,000 people; the contamination was traced to improperly stored pork. The following year, nearly a third of the 585 guests at a church-sponsored turkey dinner were sickened because nobody had taken temperature readings from the cooked birds.
“Outbreaks tend to happen when untrained volunteers are preparing large amounts of food for a lot of people,” Smith says. “I think people get overwhelmed.”
Few churches, for example, have ovens capable of cooking more than one or two turkeys at a time. So volunteer cooks are tempted to take shortcuts that may compromise food safety.
Based on that experience, Minnesota’s food safety laws kick in when churches reach out beyond their own membership, especially when they’re trying to raise money. Even in those cases, the strategy is to make sure churches have one or more people trained in basic food safety. Over the past five years or so, officials had tried several times to reach out to churches, offering day-long training sessions on food safety, Durkin says. But they got few takers.
Last year, they tried again. But this time they offered a video conference, making it easier for people to participate. And the program took off.
Word started to spread, and some churches set up food safety teams. “It was great,” Durkin said. “It turned out that people had been wanting this for years.”
But some of the information got skewed, especially when an insurance company sent out a “risk alert,” warning churches that bake sales would be affected.
There was a brief flurry of outrage. But eventually, state legislators approved a bill that clearly exempted potlucks and bake sales from state health inspections, while allowing health officials to train church volunteers in the basics of food safety.
The bottom line is a compromise that health officials believe will reduce the risk of church-related foodborne illness — and could be adopted elsewhere.
“Everybody seems to be happy,” Durkin says.”We’ve sent out 850 DVDS of our video conference and people keep asking for more…
“We had one parish nurse who took the training and told us: ‘This is so cool, I’m going to help train all the churches in town – even the Catholics!’ “
To access some of the food safety resources Minnesota has developed go here. To see the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Kitchen Companion: Your Safe Food Handbook” go here. PowerPoint presentations from a Minnesota workshop and a sample kitchen manual for church kitchens are available online at http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/food/pwdu/fsp/