At a business meeting in February, Mike Cashion met a caterer that, he soon realized, was operating illegally in the metro Jackson area.
Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association (MHRA), reported the caterer to the Mississippi State Department of Health. He was surprised when, three months later, a local newspaper featured the same caterer.
“When the article hit, my jaw dropped,” said Cashion.
When Cashion contacted the state health department about the story, he was told that the business was indeed operating legally from a bakery located in the kitchen of the owner’s mother’s home, a day care center, which has a food permit.
However, the facility can only be used for catering operations when the center is closed, after 6 p.m., and on weekends.
“The article blatantly said he wasn’t doing that,” said Cashion. “Since the article came out, I understand he is taking steps to get legal, but the story pointed out that there’s not a system in place to identify and enforce those people who are operating outside the bounds.”
The No. 1 concern…
Illegal caterers are the number one concern of the statewide professional organization’s membership, said Cashion.
“We’re not talking about grandma baking a couple of loaves of bread or some cookies for a bake sale,” he said. “We’re seeing major events being staged by these illegal operators.”
Last fall, State Health Officer Brian Amy said, “From the health department’s view, (illegal catering) is a serious public health issue. Cooking and serving food for large groups presents food safety challenges. We require caterers to obtain food service permits and operate from kitchens that our department inspects. And we require every food service permit holder to have at least one person attend and pass an approved food safety manager certification course. Caterers who have not met the department’s requirements are operating illegally and could cause a foodborne illness outbreak. They are a public health threat.”
During the 2004 session, the Mississippi State Board of Health, at the request of MHRA, proposed legislation that would have authorized assessment of a penalty for operating a food service establishment without a permit. The proposed legislation passed the Senate but died in the House Public Health Committee.
“The illegal catering bill would have given the state health department more teeth to enforce the consequences of an unlicensed operator,” said Cashion. “Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee chairman Alan Nunnelee did a fantastic job of moving legislation forward, but the House wouldn’t even entertain it.”
Nunnelee (R-Tupelo) said he endorsed the bill, which was “overwhelmingly passed by the Senate,” because “the public should know when they hire caterers or partake of food prepared by caterers that they’re assured the same safety standards as a restaurant.”
But then, in the House…
House Public Health and Human Services chairman Steve Holland (D-Plantersville) said he refused to “pass a law through my committee that licenses a housewife that cooks for people. Now how much more of an answer do you need?”
When reminded about the particular bill, Holland responded, “I killed it. It hasn’t (created) any problems for me except that it’s getting into some big-folks economics. That’s about all I know about it. I’ve been in the Legislature 21 years, and I’m tired of protecting folks on economics. If somebody can prove something substantive … I gave Cashion an opportunity to do that and he didn’t do it … then it’s going to die in my committee.”
Among the steps taken by MHRA to bring attention to the problem, Cashion facilitated a meeting early last year, “where we brought in stakeholders in this issue, including the State Tax Commission.”
“A lot of these illegal operators aren’t collecting sales tax, or worse, they’re collecting sales tax, but aren’t forwarding it to the state,” he said. “The sales tax commission doesn’t play around. They investigate the matter and take care of the problem, but the state health department seems ill equipped to identify the real problem. For example, many of these caterers work on weekends. Nobody from the state health department seems dedicated to working statewide on a weekend, so how can you catch someone in the act if nobody works past five o’clock on Friday?”
And about those church kitchens…
Cashion pointed out the state health department does not inspect church kitchens and there are numerous reports of caterers using church facilities to prepare food for sale.
“Such use could jeopardize the church’s nonprofit status,” he said.
Restaurants that provide more than “casual” catering must obtain a separate catering license from the state health department, in addition to the restaurant’s food service permit, he added.
“The real key comes in getting the state health department to commit to a procedure that works,” said Cashion. “Illegal catering is a tremendous public health risk. Most non-permitted caterers don’t have the food safety training required by the health department. Many don’t have the proper liability insurance or the proper commercial equipment required to store food properly. They don’t have proper kitchen facilities that a legitimate, licensed operator has to have. It’s an entirely separate set of standards.”
Liz Sharlot, spokesperson for the state health department, said whenever an illegal caterer is located, an enforcement notice is issued “which explains to that person (or group) that he (or they) are in violation of state law (Section 41-3-15, Mississippi Code of 1972). The person (or group) is required to cease operating until they obtain a valid food permit. MSDH follows up on all complaints in a timely manner.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.