More than 80 percent of the food vendors at last year’s Great Frederick Fair used unsafe food practices, according to inspections by the Frederick County Health Department.
The department’s health inspectors recommended corrective actions for 56 of the 67 permitted vendors at the 2013 fair. The vendors’ offerings ranged from corn dogs and caramel apples to country ham sandwiches and Maryland crab soup.
Inspectors often found food that was “out of temperature” — a vendor threw out hamburgers, hot dogs and sausage links voluntarily after the items were found to be at an unsafe temperature all afternoon.
But the most frequent violations were for the vendors’ kitchen setup: permits were not displayed, wash stations had no overhead protection and coolers and freezers were missing thermometers.
The county’s inspectors generally visit vendors as soon as they set up their tent or stand. On occasion, inspectors see violations after a vendor has started serving food.
“We don’t want to hold up or hinder the fair or the vendors by not allowing them to start because there are so many vendors and so few of us,” Food Control Program Manager Wendy Cochran said.
Cochran said they expect to issue between 70 and 80 food vendor permits for this year’s fair, slightly more than last year.
Cochran was one of six county employees who inspected food vendors at the fair last year. This year’s Great Frederick Fair will be her eighth.
“I don’t think any of us are ever really surprised by anything we see anymore,” she said.
In the refrigerator at one vendor’s stand, Cochran found a McDonald’s takeout container with “partially eaten chicken wings and bones,” according to one of her reports.
Another inspection found ice cream toppings, including chocolate syrup and butterscotch, sitting out in the 80-degree heat.
In a rare case, a vendor shut down his stand after an inspector found cakes made with feta and mozzarella cheese sitting out at an unsafe temperature.
Potomac resident Dan Cazacu, who owns Crazy Cakes, was running that stand at The Great Frederick Fair last year. He said he voluntarily threw out his eggs, milk and other perishable food after the inspection.
Since then, he has stopped opening Crazy Cakes stands at fairs and only takes catering requests. Working with inspectors at the Frederick and Montgomery County fairs was not worth the effort, he said.
“You spend a lot of money and it’s like going for the lottery, you never know what you’ll get,” he said. “One of the biggest problems is that people who make a living just based on those fairs are competing with those guys who come with big trailers year after year.”
Cochran said the people operating the stands are generally experienced in food service, but many underestimate the planning and coordination that is necessary for small, temporary setups.
“(Some) are lucky enough to have running water, and some people might have some extension cords to maybe a power source or a generator,” she said.
Running a temporary food stand for a week at a fair is very different from running a business from home, Cazacu said.
“The main challenge is around making sure you have all the stuff you need to keep things fresh and refrigerated,” he said.
Cherice Norris, event coordinator for South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, said she's operated the creamery's stand at the fair the past two years and will return this year.
The stand will offer milkshakes, ice cream cones and pints of ice cream for fairgoers to take home. Norris said it hasn't been difficult keeping everything cold.
"We have all our freezers, and each day, we bring (food products) fresh from the farm," she said.
According to Cochran, another reason violations are common is because inspectors usually try to visit vendors before they start serving food.
“We are hitting the majority of them before they are actually fully set up and ready to operate,” she said.
Despite the violations, Cochran said people who visit the fair shouldn’t be concerned about the safety of the food.
“They wouldn’t be open and operating if they weren’t safe,” she said.
Follow Sylvia Carignan on Twitter: @SylviaCarignan.