House panel moves from lemonade to ham sandwiches

Last week, House Commerce Committee members were concerned about a potential crackdowns on kids’ lemonade stands. On Tuesday, the committee was worried about health inspectors going into a home kitchen of someone trying to make sandwiches for the local convenience store. One potential remedy is to prevent local health department going beyond state rules, which could result in a “disaster to local communities,” in the words of Rep. Rich DiPentima, D-Portsmouth, a former health inspector whose bill — House Bill 234 — unexpectedly stirred all this up.HB 234 originally would have established a dedicated fund for food protection, but dedicated funds are deadly words with this committee, which retained the bill.The state Department of Health and Human Services saw the writing on the wall, and stripped away the fund, leaving a seemingly innocuous technical bill to change the local health department law to coincide with federal rules and existing practice.But HHS had made the mistake last week of trying to bring back its authority to inspect farm stands, an authority that was taken away by another bill last session. That brought the charge that the state was trying to shut down kids’ lemonade stands.The chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Jenn Coffey, R-Andover, said that this was a real concern because she saw on the Internet that this was done in Concord. When the HHS said that it must have been the city of Concord’s Health Department – one of the 16 municipal departments that regulate health — lawmakers brought up the idea of bringing such localities under control of the state.It turns out that that the only incident involving Concord and lemonade stands that made the Internet had to do with a Concord adult giving away lemonade at a local farmers market without paying for a permit, and the only authority trying to shut him down was an official of the market. The big issue that actually emerged from the incident was when police suggested that the lemonade vendor was violating the state’s wiretapping law by filming police who were called in.DiPentima pointed this out – and the protection of rights of young lemonade entrepreneurs was dropped — but that didn’t stop an amendment being brought before the subcommittee that would have prevented local health departments from going further than state regulations — an idea that appealed to Coffey because it would be easier for those doing business across town lines to have “uniformity of laws across the state.”However, DiPentima, who used to work for the city of Manchester, said he was “shocked by the implications of this to local community and local control.”First he brought up the fact that Manchester alone inspects some 700 restaurants. Does the state really want to take that over?Rep. John Hunt, R-Rindge — who chairs the full House Commerce Committee — countered that the amendment wouldn’t do that, it would only prevent the local inspectors going further than the state. Did that ever happen in Manchester?Well, yes, said DiPentima. The Manchester Health Department inspected people selling hazardous food made in their house that is sold to the public. And that hazardous food included mayonnaise, DiPentima said in answer to Hunt’s inquiry.”So you couldn’t make a ham and cheese sandwich in Manchester and sell it?”DiPentima wasn’t’ concerned so much about the ham and cheese sandwich. He was concerned that the state exempted temporary food providers from health regulations. But local health authorities in cities that hold a lot of food festivals, like Portsmouth and Manchester, do inspect those food vendors. One serious outbreak of foodborne disease could be disastrous at such a festival and do serious damage, he said.Hunt essentially nixed the amendment as non-germane.Banning ham and cheese sandwiches from someone’s kitchen might be a “little scary … however, that’s not what is in this bill.”But the idea of ham and cheese sandwich didn’t go away. Commerce committee members were next concerned about a phrase specifying that the state health department had the power to inspect commercial food processing plants for resale.Inspectors already do this, but this would specify that power in law. Is it possible that such plants include someone home kitchens, lawmakers wanted to know.No, but HHS already inspects home kitchens if the food is sold for resale, agency officials replied.In other words, summed up Coffey, if you make that ham and cheese sandwich in your home and sell them to a truck driver, it’s OK (outside of Manchester) but if you bring those sandwiches to a convenience store, you need a license.In the end, committee members were satisfied that food processing plants were aimed large commercial processing plants and tweaked the legislation so that those whose license was revoked could get it back without taking a food safety course.As for the ham and cheese sandwich? That was left for lunch. — BOB SANDERS/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW

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