TULSA - One of the hardest parts of the summer festival season is deciding what to eat, and people usually think about their choice of food more than whether it's safe.
But they should consider food safety just as much as what they're craving.
"There (are) so many different ways that you can get sick from food," said Kendra Wise, sanitarian and special events coordinator for the Tulsa County Health Department. "Whether it's from poor personal hygiene and someone not washing their hands or working when they're sick, to food not being cooked or cooled down or reheated properly."
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That's where people like Wise and Larry Bergner come in.
Bergner is the main state health inspector for the northeast region. 2NEWS followed Bergner as he met with food vendors at Bartlesville Sunfest.
"We initially do what we call a licensing inspection to go through the temporaries -- the tents -- and we issue a temporary license if they meet the minimum requirements," said Bergner. "Then we'll look at the mobile units, check that their license is accurate and up-to-date. We'll then do a full initial inspection to make sure everyone gets off on the right foot."
In tents, Bergner looks for a roof, screened sides and a solid ground covering. The ground covering could be a tarp as long as there aren't any holes in it.
He makes sure every food vendor meets requirements for hand and dish washing, utensil and equipment sanitizing and food storage.
"I've had occasions when I've had operators that don't comply with our requirements," said Bergner. "We talk to the event coordinators, and we can actually have units kicked out of an event."
Kicking out a vendor is uncommon. Bergner said it hasn't happened for at least five years. The last incident he remembers is a Las Vegas-based Chinese food vendor who wasn't prepared for a thunderstorm.
The vendor tracked mud through the stand, making the food preparation area unsanitary.
In some areas of Oklahoma, there aren't enough inspectors to make it to every event or to every day of an event.
In those cases, Bergner said they're comfortable working with established events like Sunfest, which has been around 30 years, where organizers know the regulations and make sure vendors follow them.
"Those events where it's a beginning or newer event, we take extra care to make sure we hit those events, to make sure we have a presence on-site," said Bergner.
Tulsa County has 20 field inspectors. They've performed around 300 inspections at 70 events so far this year.
"The bigger events, like Mayfest or the fair, of course, we're out there about every day," said Wise. "Quite a few events that happen in Tulsa County are just one- or two-day events, so we don't really have to go back."
Health inspectors look for the same things in a mobile kitchen or food vendor that they do in a restaurant kitchen. But there are things you can look for to make sure your food will be safe before you eat it.
"Just see what you can see, inside their windows," said Bryan Bennett, who's operated mobile kitchens for 16 years. "Are their surfaces clean? Is the outside of the unit clean? That'll tell you a lot about how they're doing on the inside. It's kind of like a restaurant, you know. If the restroom is dirty, you wonder what the kitchen looks like."
Wise also offered a few tips based on what health inspectors look for.
"I look for hand washing," she said. "I also like to look for fly control. Make sure they don't have a lot of flies inside their concession stand and have no food sitting out that's not being processed."
And make sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before eating. From rides to petting zoos, there are a lot of places to pick up germs before you pick up that turkey leg.
If you're ever in doubt, just ask to see the vendor's license from the health department.
"That's one of the most obvious ways. If they have their mobile license, they've been approved by the local health department," said Bennett.
If you do eat something at an event in Tulsa County and think it's made you sick, call the health department at 918-595-4300.
If you see questionable conditions at a food vendor during an event, Bergner said the best thing you can do is not eat there. Try to find a health inspector at the event, or notify one of the event's staff members.
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