2011-03-31 / Features

Food Safety Issues Bother Some Pa. Barbecuers

By Cindy Stauffer


LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) – The tangy smell of chicken barbecue is one of the harbingers of spring in Lancaster County.

When the weather turns warm, barbecues start popping up on Saturdays along local roads. Service clubs, sports teams and fire companies sell the barbecued birds through the fall to raise funds.

But the barbecues increasingly are attracting the attention of food safety inspectors, whose requirements can be expensive to implement. At least one large barbecuer recently dropped out of the business, leaving some groups to scramble to find new ways to raise funds.

“Things seem to be getting more fanatical all the time,’’ said Walter Johns, an Ephrata man who decided to call it quits before the spring season began this year.

Another large barbecuer here recently jumped through the inspection hoops, but said the requirements were costly and cumbersome.

“My biggest issue is having to have a tent over the chicken when you cook it,’’ said Mike Himes of Mike’s Barbecue in Lititz. “The reason was so that airborne pollutants don’t get on the chicken.’’

“Please,’’ he said dryly. “ It’s 800 degrees under there.’’

Those who follow the rules also wonder if the regulations are being uniformly enforced on barbecuers who largely operate on weekends, often on back roads.

“A lot of people are flying under the radar,’’ said Charlie Murphy, who owns Charlie’s Chicken BBQ in Willow Street.

The state inspects food purveyors throughout most of the county, except where local health departments or boroughs undertake the task.

A state Department of Agriculture spokeswoman said even though a chicken barbecue may appear to be a casual affair, it still needs to adhere to standards required of those in the food business.

“Cooking temperatures, hand-washing, cross- contamination _ it’s the same across the board,’’ Nicole Bucher said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s within four walls or set up on a parking lot, the food safety issue is the same.’’

Some long-time barbe- cuers say they understand the need for and comply with state inspections, but the requirements have curtailed the way they do business.

Murphy had two barbecue crews at one point. He cut back to one because he didn’t have enough of the required equipment.

Johns learned he needed to acquire a three-bay wash sink, hot and cold water dispensers, a generator and other equipment for what was a weekend business.

“I thought it’s just not worth it,’’ Johns said.

Johns had run barbecues that benefited local Lions clubs, fire companies and sports teams from Conestoga Valley and Ephrata.

One of his longtime customers was the Lafayette Lions Club, which used its $1,000 in barbecue proceeds to help combat blindness, provide scholarships and fund dental work and prescription drugs for needy families.

“It’s a big deal for us to find another fundraiser to replace it and meet our commitments,’’ said Barry Girvin, a past president.

Himes also provides barbecues for sports teams, service clubs, American Cancer Society Relay for Life teams and others.

Like Murphy, he believes inspectors don’t consistently enforce the regulations on every barbecuer.

“That’s my beef,’’ Himes said.

Murphy said smaller, unlicensed competitors may match his prices but don’t have the same amount of money invested in equipment that he does. He thinks that is unfair.

Both Himes and Johns have met with state Sen. Mike Brubaker to discuss the regulations and their enforcement.

Kristin Crawford, Brubaker’s legislative director, said enforcement is a “balancing act.’’

“We all want our food to be safe for ourselves and our families,’’ she said. “But the only way to increase enforcement is to make a policy to check out every chicken barbecue and drive around country roads looking for these operations, and people don’t necessarily want that.’’

The best way to ensure that an operation is licensed is to ask questions and to report unlicensed barbecuers to the state, she said.

For those who have stayed in the business, it’s booming, owing to the loss of Johns and another Manheim area barbecuer who ended his business because of health problems.

Murphy and Himes said their phones are ringing off the hook. Money is tight for everyone these days and organizations need every dollar they can raise.

The Ephrata track team made as much as $2,000 from past chicken barbecues.

The team is planning other fundraisers, coach John Keller said, but is not sure if they will be as lucrative.

Keller said the barbecues were important for the students, who helped at the events.

“It was a day that the team could gather and spend some time away from the rigors of practice and school,’’ he said.

“To me, it is a big loss whether we make the money up or not, and I hated to see it go.’’

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