Your Field Guide to Food Safety at Festivals & Fairs


With the festivals and fairs season approaching, it’s important to be mindful of food safety. It can be quite tricky deciding which food to choose. You might find it hard to decide if you want to eat the deep-fried pig ears, fudge-covered scorpion or sautéed mealworms. For me, I’m not concerned with the type of food as much as how it’s handled, stored and prepared. When at a festival or fair, take a closer look at the vendors before you eat their food. There are many factors that can lead to foodborne illness from the temporary food vendors at these events, and you should know what they are.

Oftentimes, temporary food vendors are part-time cooks and may not have a complete knowledge of proper food safety practices or may never have taken a food safety training course. They may want to prepare food at home and then bring it to an event to sell. They may not bring adequate means to keep food hot or cold. They may not have an appropriate way to wash hands (and, by the way, hand sanitizers are not adequate). These things, if not handled properly, can lead to serious illness. Respro has put together a list of questions you should ask before eating any food at fairs or festivals.

Is there a health department permit posted?

Every food vendor should have a permit to operate from the health department. This permit should be posted for the public to see. If you don’t see one, ask the vendor about it. Currently, health departments don’t have the resources to inspect these events every day, so some vendors set up shop without health department consent, gambling they won’t get caught. When this happens, I can almost guarantee they won’t have proper food safety controls in place. When a permit is issued, usually the vendor has had to go through a lengthy approval process, proving they have proper knowledge and equipment to adequately serve their menu in a safe manner.

Can you see their inspection?

If a vendor has a health department permit, the operation should have an inspection to show it meets the minimum requirements to be open. If you don’t see it, ask about it. It may be eye opening to see what the vendor was cited for and if those citations were corrected.

Are there many hazardous food items?

Executing a successful food operation out of a temporary booth is very difficult even for experienced food operators from restaurants. Preparing many different food items only compounds the problem. I would be concerned about a vendor trying to prepare chicken, beef, pork, rice and fresh salads all out of the same booth. The opportunity for cross-contamination is so great because of the limited space, lack of proper sanitizing and storage space. Do they have a separate cooler for each type of raw meat and ready-to-eat foods? If they don’t, I would keep walking. 

Do you see a way for staff to wash hands?

Every booth should have a way to wash hands within the booth. This is easily accomplished by having a simple 10-gallon water jug with a spigot, soap, towels and waste bucket. If they don’t have these or they claim they are using their neighbor’s resources, keep moving. If they have a water jug set up, but it’s still full of water and the waste bucket is empty, keep moving. Think about it—they should have used the water, towels and waste bucket at least once to wash their hands before they began serving food! Also, hand sanitizer is never a substitute for washing hands with soap and water. If they claim that’s how they keep their hands clean, keep moving. Lack of proper hand washing is one of the quickest ways to cross-contaminate food and make someone sick. Check out what happened at the Taste of Chicago event in 2007: Salmonella Outbreak Traced to Taste Booth. 

Are they wearing gloves?

If vendors need to handle food with their hands, they should be wearing gloves. Glove use is only effective if adequate hand washing facilities are available. Wearing gloves is great, but if they can’t wash their hands, it becomes part of the problem. 

How close are the food vendors to animal pens and port-a-potties?

Most of the recent outbreaks at fairs have been from the farm animals present. The food vendors shouldn’t be anywhere near the animals or portable toilets. It’s too easy for wind or flies to transport disease-carrying bugs and dust to the food-prep areas. For a comprehensive list of farm animals causing outbreaks, read this article from Fair and Petting Zoo Safety: Preventing E. coli Outbreaks.

Here are a few more resources for more information:

Have Fun but Be Cautious

Don’t let a bad food vendor ruin your festival experience. Take the time to look at each food vendor. Every festival has the good, bad, and just plain ugly food vendors in terms of practicing good food safety. By following this field guide, it should be easy to find out which ones they are.

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