It’s a sunny, summer day when Hannah Marschinke stops at the Neumann Farms: Pork and Beef stand at the Maple Grove Farmers Market. But she’s not stocking up on brats and chops. As a Hennepin County health inspector, she’s there to make sure everything’s in compliance with the Minnesota Food Safety Code.
Marschinke is one of 17 health inspectors deployed by Hennepin County Public Health to enforce the state’s food safety rules at restaurants, school cafeterias, institutional kitchens, food stands, and other food service establishments across the county. Similar food code enforcement responsibilities are assigned to municipal and county health departments across the state, as well as the Minnesota departments of health and agriculture.
The science of food safety identifies time and temperature among the most important factors for reducing the risk of foodborne illness. Between 41°F and 140°F is the temperature danger zone.
At the Neumann Farms stand, Marschinke checks that the vendor’s frozen meats are being kept fully frozen (0°F or below). She also makes sure their grilled brats and chops are fully cooked (at least 155°F for at least fifteen seconds) and kept above 140°F until sold, and that there’s no bare-hand contact with the cooked food while it’s being prepared and served.
On this day, she also observes that there’s a functioning handwashing station. Check. A current food license that’s clearly posted. Check. And a three-compartment wash-rinse-sanitize set-up for utensils, cutting boards, and food containers. Check.
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The Neumanns are accustomed to this scrutiny. Over the past 15 years, the family from rural Princeton – Ron, Joyce, and daughter Tina – have developed a satisfied following of customers at a half dozen local farmers markets in Hennepin, Ramsey, Sherburne, and Stearns counties. Achieving this level of customer confidence requires ongoing care and attention. Food safety is a fundamental part of their business model.
“Our customers like knowing the farmer who produced their food. They care where it comes from and how it was raised, processed, and handled,” Ron says. “They count on our meats being the best quality, with good flavor – and knowing that they're safe.”
Periodic inspections by health department staff help the Neumanns achieve and maintain that standard. These food code enforcement visits aren’t seen by the family operation as a business hindrance or hassle, but “just another step.”
A few summers ago, the Neumanns also started grilling and selling individual brats and pork chops at their stand. “The smoke and aroma draws people over,” Lisa says, smiling. “They’re hungry, they try a just-cooked brat or chop, and then pick up a pack or two of frozen ones for home.”
Their branching out into cooked food sales triggered the addition of the hand wash, no-bare-hand-contact, and utensil sanitizing requirements to their food license.
The science of food safety identifies time and temperature as the most important factors for controlling growth of disease-causing bacteria and for reducing the risk of foodborne illness.
Between 41°F and 140°F is defined as “the temperature danger zone.” Below 41°F or above 140°F, bacteria are kept at bay; between those temps bacterial growth can be rampant. To stay safe, potentially hazardous foods – like unrefrigerated raw meat – should pass through the temperature danger zone as quickly as possible and be kept out of that zone before serving.
Use of a probe thermometer can verify hot food is kept hot and cold food is kept cold, and the Neumanns do this often at their stand.
For this family, though, the practice of producing safe-to-eat meats starts with the way they raise their livestock. Their farm used to produce as many as 3,000 market hogs a year for stockyard sale to meat packers. Since 2002, they’ve cut back to a smaller number of animals – 150 hogs and 30 beef animals this year – all raised hormone- and antibiotic-free and mostly sold as trimmed, packaged, and frozen meats directly to farmer's market customers.
All of their products are processed by McDonald’s Meats, a family-owned USDA-licensed-and-inspected locker plant in Clear Lake. A USDA stamp indicates this on their products. “That’s a stamp consumers typically find on supermarket meats,” notes Marschinke, “but it’s also a good indicator of food safety that buyers should look for on products from smaller direct vendors.”
The Neumanns meats are kept frozen until they’re readied for sale. Then they haul their products to farmer's markets in a pickup-towed trailer bearing chest freezers full of frozen meats. Just before leaving the farm, they unplug the freezers from their power sockets and then plug them in again as soon as they get to their market stall. Tightly sealed, the freezers keep their cargo solidly frozen enroute, and the cuts stay in those freezers until the minute they’re sold.
When food safety violations are identified, Marschinke and her peers educate the vendor about the food code. If necessary, they also have the authority to issue legal citations, usually with a required remedial action and a monetary fine. “It’s similar to police writing a traffic citation,” Marschinke explains. An establishment can be ordered closed until remediation occurs. In worse cases, heavier fines or a license revocation can occur.
“Those extreme circumstances seldom happen,” the inspector acknowledges, “because no good food operator wants to go in that direction. All food vendors are in business to provide good food that people want to purchase. And we’re in business to make sure they can do that – and in the process, we protect people’s health.”
Written by: Bill Belknap