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Inspectors keep a close eye on State Fair food

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Testing food
Steven Diaz, a food tester with the Minnesota Department of Health, tests the temperature of some raw tomatoes at The Peg restaurant at the Minnesota State Fair.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

It's lunchtime, and the Peg restaurant near the Space Tower at the Minnesota State Fair is bustling.

In the kitchen, co-owner Tim Carlson shouts out customer orders to the fry cook, Mike Dickey.    "That steak sandwich is medium rare. That's 'to go.' You got a 'to go' container behind you. I just put down a sausage for you. You have a Peg Muffin with a tomato on the side." 

  Food is a huge attraction for fairgoers. About 300 food stands are scattered about the fair grounds, ready to serve the nearly 2 million people who come through the gates each year. 

With all of that food, often produced in stifling hot conditions, fairgoers might easily wonder if anyone ever gotten sick from contaminated fair food.

That's a particularly important question this year, during a national recall of more than a half billion salmonella-tainted eggs.

But the answer is no. Fair organizers say they have never had a foodborne illness outbreak in the entire 151-year history of the Minnesota State Fair. They credit their strong relationship with the Minnesota Department of Health, which inspects every food vendor. 

Fried egg
Co-owner of The Peg, Greg Auge, says the restaurant used to get a lot of orders for eggs prepared sunny side up. But he says most people like them over easy these days.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Compared to inspecting full-service restaurants with lots of menu items, it's relatively simple to inspect food vendors at the state fair, state health inspector Steven Diaz said. Anyone who doubts that need only watch Diaz scrutinize a vendor at the fair, as he did the Peg on Wednesday.   

After washing his hands, Diaz hangs back for a bit and watches the cook and Carlson do their jobs.

  "This guy in the red shirt has not left the grill. That's what he does, he deals with the grill," Diaz explains. "And this guy is our expediter. He's the one who's finishing. We've seen him use a combination of gloves, utensils and other things to make sure he's not contacting these ready-to-eat items. So they're eliminating their cross-contamination by having two people here."

But wouldn't a cook do everything right with a state inspector watching?

"You'd be surprised," Diaz said. "They may be good for the first five minutes or 10 minutes, but shortly after that, they fall back into their old habits as you just kind of stay here and observe what's going on."

Serving an order
Mike Dickey and co-owner Tim Carlson serve up an order at The Peg restaurant at the State Fair.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

The restaurant's team is unflappable, and Diaz likes what he sees. After taking the temperature of some food on the grill, in nearby warming racks and in an open vegetable chiller, Diaz moves on to inspecting the refrigerator. On a middle rack he finds a single food safety issue and calls over Greg Auge, who has owned the restaurant for 27 years. 

"You've got your raw pork above some peppers and items that are down below," Diaz said. "Let's just get those items directly up to the top, and then get the pork down below."

"Sure no problem," Auge responds.

 Diaz then quizzes Auge on his food safety knowledge.

"Do you know what the four diseases are that you're required to [report] to the Health Department if you or any of your staff have it?" he asks. 

Auge passes the question off to his partner. "Timmy! Four diseases you have to report to the health department? Come on, help me out here. I'm at a loss. I'm worried about my burgers burning," he laughs.   

Carlson steps over and he and Auge come up with three of the illnesses -- salmonella, E. coli and hepatitis A. But the men are stumped by the fourth one. Diaz tells them a lot of people miss it.

"It's shigella," Diaz said.

  "Shigella, shigella," Carlson and Auge simultaneously affirm.

Auge takes the pop quiz in stride, saying the reminders help him serve his customers better. He said food safety is a big priority for him, which is why he posted the recall numbers of the egg batches contaminated with salmonella next to his refrigerator.

"We check everything coming in, the codes, like we posted them here," he said. "So we're watching it real close."  

  Auge estimates that 60 to 70 percent of his customers order their eggs over easy -- a practice the Food and Drug Administration is now discouraging due to the threat of salmonella in the uncooked yolk. He said it will be interesting to see how customers want their eggs cooked during this year's fair.  

"Years ago it used to be a lot of sunny side," Auge said. "Very little sunny side anymore, because I think the message is getting across there."