April 14, 2024

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Wake County celebrates culinary diversity while stressing food safety

4 min read
home based food

On average, every single day, 56 people are becoming Wake County residents – that’s 56 people, each bringing their unique stories, traditions and food preferences to our county. With such rich diversity comes an abundance of creative, delicious foods from all the cultures our residents represent.

“Wake County is proud to be home to hardworking people who love sharing their heritage, culture, cooking or baking skills by starting their own food ventures,” said Shinica Thomas, chair, Wake County Board of Commissioners. ”However, running a food business requires lots of planning and effort to ensure the food sold to the community is safe. Starting a home-based food business is exciting, but it comes with a responsibility to safeguard the public from foodborne illness.”

The Wake County Divison of Environmental Health and Safety is here to provide that support through education and the inspection of permitted food establishments in Wake County.

“People have many different starting points when it comes to food entrepreneurship,” said Ashley Whittington, Wake County Environmental Health program manager. “In the food industry, some culinary entrepreneurs may start with a brick and mortar establishment, a mobile food unit or a home-based food operation.”

“Across all starting points, there are varying levels of awareness of food safety guidelines, which can be confusing. At the end of the day, these guidelines exist to keep our community safe from food-borne illness. The more we lower food-borne risk factors, the more we can focus on uplifting the delicious and diverse foods in Wake County,” added Whittington.

Food-borne outbreaks pose a serious risk to the community and often result in individuals becoming sick and even hospitalized. Food poisoning risks extend beyond the public health concerns. In several local instances, these outbreaks can bring legal consequences for those found in violation of food safety laws. Consuming unregulated food may also pose hazards through unknown sources of ingredients, contaminated food surfaces, temperature abuse, poor food handling and handwashing procedures, undisclosed allergens and unregulated spices that may expose a child to lead poisoning risks.

To help build awareness and knowledge of these guidelines, Wake County’s Environmental Health and Safety Division created a dedicated webpage to provide education on food safety guidelines to culinary entrepreneurs who are currently involved in the home-based food industry. Wake County has also produced flyers that will be disseminated in partnership with community stakeholders.

Wake County regulations and permitting process

To avoid foodborne illness, it’s important to recognize that some food items are more likely than others to become unsafe to eat. Those foods are called “Time/Temperature Control for Safety” foods. Proper time and temperature controls are necessary to prevent the growth of bacteria that can cause illness.

Wake County Division of Environmental Health & Safety regulates production of Time/Temperature Control for Safety foods. It is against the law for producers to make these foods for sale in their homes. Some examples of these regulated foods include:

  • Meats, including fish and eggs
  • Cooked vegetables
  • Products containing cut tomatoes
  • Cut leafy greens
  • Cut melons
  • Sprouts

Dishes that often contain these regulated foods include most entrees, cooked side dishes and appetizers, as well as many desserts.

If food producers want to make these foods, they need to find a commercial space, undergo the regular Plan Review process and obtain a permit. Wake County then inspects the business like any other food establishment. Wake County has 28 field staff that regularly visit food establishments to provide education, conduct inspection and support operators in creating the safest establishments possible.

While many small, home-based food producers can’t afford a commercial facility or restaurant, the use of “commissaries,” or shared kitchens, in the Wake County area is on the rise. These are clean, permitted facilities where food entrepreneurs can rent a space to create the foods. There are numerous shared-use kitchens in Wake County that have become go-to places for chefs, caterers and other food producers who face cost barriers in operating their own commercial and licensed kitchen. A quick search on the internet can help locate these increasingly popular spaces.

NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services regulations and inspections

Low-risk homemade items that don’t need refrigeration for safety such as baked goods, jams, jellies, candies, dried mixes and spices can be made at home in North Carolina under inspection by North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Acid foods that can be safely stored at room temperature, or “on the shelf,” are allowed, such as some BBQ sauces.

The producers of these foods need to contact the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for information on the home processor inspection process. They must develop a detailed business plan, check local permitting and zoning regulations, create labels and submit a copy of a recent water bill. If well water is used, it must be tested for bacteria before inspection. Wake County does not regulate preparation of low-risk homemade items.

Home-based food producers inspected by the NC Department of Agriculture can sell products through various venues, including online sales, homes, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, special events, grocery stores and restaurants.

Consumers are encouraged to only purchase prepared foods from permitted food establishments recognizable by their North Carolina grade card. You may also contact the Environmental Health Section of your local health department if you have questions regarding the permit status of a food vendor.
 

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