On October 21, Southern Nevada Health District inspector Mary Oakes crashed a dinner event at Quail Hollow Farm, in Overton, Nev. When Oakes arrived, a rented catering truck was parked next to the farmhouse. The truck contained food that had been prepared in a state-certified Las Vegas kitchen by a certified chef who transported the food to the farm, where he and a crew were preparing to serve it. According to reports from guests that night, and Quail Hollow co-owners Laura and Monte Bledsoe, Oakes made the cooks dump the freshly prepared food into the trash, and then demanded they pour bleach onto the discarded food—to ensure that even the farm's pigs couldn't eat it. (You can see video of the raid, as well as a letter that Bledsoe wrote to her guests afterwards, here: http://tiny.cc/9v9hi.)
The event had caught the attention of the SNHD because of an advertisement for the meal in a local paper, according to Oakes' supervisor Susan LaBay, who I interviewed by phone. She said her office became involved because the ad mentioned the event was "open to the public" and Quail Hollow was charging a fee. These facts made it a public health issue.
The Bledsoes were contacted by SNHD and told they had to apply for a Temporary Food Establishment Permit. "Had it been a private event not open to the public, we would not have been involved and they would not have needed the permit," LaBay said.
LaBay was on the phone with Oakes during the inspection. She said the biggest issues with the food were its temperature and oxygen environment. Inspector Oakes found food sitting at between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a dangerous temperature range—especially with the food sealed in airtight containers, which could encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria like botulism. LaBay denied that the bleach was used to prevent feeding the discarded food to the farm's pigs. "I was not sure that was what would happen to the food. We have had people in the past who, after we've required them to throw the food away, have taken it back out of the trash and served it to people. We have to ensure that doesn't happen."
Unfortunately, this is the state of food safety in America. As mass outbreaks of food-borne illness have left citizens uneasy about food safety, the public employees we pay to keep us safe can sometimes make it harder to disengage from the very food system we fear.
Well-intentioned food safety regulations, whether inadequately written in a one-size-fits-all format or placed in the hands of overzealous bureaucrats, can hinder producers of some of the healthiest food available. It's like an immune system having an allergic reaction, hurting or destroying the very body it's supposed to protect.
LaBay doesn't see it that way. "Our regulations are based on science," she says, adding that her office has no assurance that farmers have knowledge of proper food-handling methods.
As his farm was raided, Monte Bledsoe called the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund hotline. After explaining what was happening, the Bledsoes got a quick call back from FCLDF general counsel Gary Cox, who told them that because the inspector had no warrant, all they had to do was ask her to leave.
The Bledsoes asked Oakes to leave, and she did, angrily, threatening to return with the police.
With dinner bleaching in the trash, hosts and guests decided to make things right by taking to the fields, harvesting anew and preparing another meal.
"The atmosphere turned from tense and angry to loving and supportive," Bledsoe wrote. "Paying guests volunteered their services."
Dinner number two was almost ready to serve when inspector Oakes showed up again, this time with two Overton police officers.
Oakes wanted the police to issue the Bledsoes a citation. The police responded that there was no actionable infraction for which to cite them. Oakes again called LaBay, who was also unable to persuade the police to act.
Instead, the police asked inspector Oakes to leave. And she did.
LaBay told me she's disappointed with the police, who she says were obligated to assist a public officer in her work. "The operators were not being compliant with regard to throwing out the food," LaBay said, though video of the food being dumped appears to contradict this statement.
After Oakes and the police left, farmers and guests were free to enjoy the starry evening and good food. Libations helped counteract the sobering reality of what had just happened, but clearly the greater problem had not been solved.
Part of the problem, says LaBay, was simply the short notice they had in preparing for the event. "I had to make a judgment call," she told the Moapa Valley Progress. "It is possible that I overreacted and, if I overreacted, I apologize for that."
Food safety regulation is tricky. The majority of problems come from large facilities. But the regulations can also pose undue burden on small scale, local operations that many would argue are the solution and not the problem. Getting these codes to work for us, rather than against us, might take a while. In the meantime, the take-home message is clear: If you want to eat good, clean, minimally processed and locally produced food in America, be prepared to fight for it.
"Your first and only mistake was filling out any paperwork," wrote commenter Francis Mac Millan in response to an online version of Laura Bledsoe's account of the evening. "By filling out the paperwork you agreed to the terms of the government. Had you not filled out the paperwork the government had no right to interfere. You gave up your sovereign right to govern yourself."
Mac Millan's comment also referenced the following section from the Declaration of Independence:
"That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..."