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Inspector Keeps Heat on Fair Food Vendors


Dining at the Ventura County Fair may add a few inches to your waistline, clog your arteries or require an extended stay in the dentist's chair. But if Charles Genkel has anything to say about it, the fair's fare won't--at the very least--make you sick.

As an inspector in Ventura County's Environmental Health Department, Genkel works to ensure that all food purveyors at the fair--from the salsa-maker demonstrator to the corn dog peddler--have proper permits and are meeting state guidelines for preparation, storage and cleanliness.

The 12 days the Ventura County Fair is in town at Seaside Park are some of the busiest for the health department, said Elizabeth Huff of the Community Services Division.

"Especially when it first starts to open, because everyone must be inspected before a permit is issued," Huff said. The department issued 112 permits for this year's fair, each of which costs an operator $126.

During the run of the fair, at least one inspector roams the fairgrounds daily doing follow-up visits and random checks, Huff said.

"There's no way that every day you're going to walk through all 112 of those places," she said. "But they know we're there, and that's enough of a reminder sometimes."

Genkel, who has been an inspector with the county for about four years, said health concerns come with the territory. After all, food is prepared in the general vicinity of the petting zoo.

"There are certainly factors you wouldn't have to deal with in a restaurant," Genkel said.

Move-in day is a source of potential problems, Genkel said, because all the vendors simultaneously set up sewer and water connections. Last year, a sewer line backed up in the food court and none of the booths could open until workers cleared the blockage, he said.


Other common concerns are ensuring food is stored properly--not on the ground where it can collect dust, for instance--and that temperatures of perishable foods are kept either below 41 degrees or above 140 degrees in accordance with state guidelines.

"These are issues everywhere, but at the fair they really stand out," Genkel said.

County health inspectors recently began stepping up enforcement of temporary food service facilities, such as the vendors found at the fair and other weekend festivals, Huff said.

The heightened focus stems from new, tougher state legislation as well as public attention on the issue after incidents such as when 300 people became ill at the Avocado Festival in Carpinteria last fall, Huff said.

Although inspectors investigated a complaint about a fair food booth last year, Huff said Ventura County has not had a food-borne illness eruption at a public event in the 18 years she has worked for the department.

"What we do is try to ensure that it's safe for you to eat anywhere in the county, whether it's the fair or your favorite restaurant," Huff said.

Those who enjoy the event's deep-fried fare are grateful.

"It makes me feel good that it's being monitored," said Ventura resident Tom Savala.

Ojai residents Roxye McNeil, Marge Hatton and Goldena Stallings have been dining at the fair for 30 years. Hundreds of roast beef sandwiches and ice cream bars later, the women say they have never eaten anything that didn't agree with them.

"We love food, and it always tastes better at the fair," McNeil said.

"I'm glad they're inspecting," said Stallings. "So many people get food poisoning from places like this."

But the assurance that health inspectors are keeping a watchful eye on the food booths still won't convince Ventura resident Teresa Vega to eat certain delicacies at the fair.

"These guys are out to make money," she said. "You don't know what happens behind closed doors."

Behind the screened windows of a few food booths at the fair on Wednesday, Genkel conducted routine checks, making his way down a lengthy checklist affixed to a thick metal clipboard.

The first thing Genkel does when he arrives at a booth is wash his hands, which allows him to see how easily employees have access to the sink and "sets a good example," he said.

After the inspection, the worst that can happen is the booth is closed down or issued a citation, which could be a result of bad food temperatures or a lack of adequate hot water.

But more commonly--as long as there is no immediate health hazard--inspectors write reports for things that need to be fixed and then follow up on them, Genkel said.

Such was the case at one of the fair's corn dog stands, where Genkel found a ceiling cooling unit that was dripping water. Vic Marcus, owner of the Hemet-based company, said he would fix it right away, but in the meantime Genkel told employees not to move cooked corn dogs from the fryers to the display window closest to the ceiling unit.

"It's a source of contamination because you don't know where the water came from or what's been in it," he said.

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