The Ector County Health Department recently went viral. Health inspectors posted on Facebook that they had seized 25 dozen tamales from an unlicensed street vendor, and 1,800 people commented, most of them negatively.
The inspectors were accused of being on a “sick trip”. Officials were also accused of extortion and seizing tamales to eat.
Hector County Health Director Brandi Garcia and her staff denied those claims, saying they were only trying to prevent people from eating contaminated food and getting sick, or worse.
“We are here to help the community. We are here to protect the community. We want businesses to thrive and be successful and we want to help them do that, but we want them to do it the right way and we want to help them do it the right way,” said Kelby Upchurch, county water quality specialist and investigator. “We’re not here to try to make your life harder or hurt feelings or target anyone or hurt anyone’s business. We want to protect the community from epidemics and diseases. We’ve had enough of that over the last few years and if we can prevent that, that’s what we’re trying to do.
Each year, Ector County documents roughly 700 cases of people getting sick from contaminated food or water, and those are just the cases that have been reported and confirmed through lab work, Garcia said. Hundreds of others don’t bother to see a doctor or attribute their illness to indigestion or some other ailment.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control, 3,000 people die each year from foodborne illnesses in the United States. Another 128,000 have been hospitalized.
The number one job of health inspectors is to try to prevent people from contracting potentially deadly diseases such as Salmonella, E.coli, Listeria, botulism, Campylobacter, Norovirus and Shigellosis, Garcia said.
There are several ways food can become contaminated — including through the use of unapproved products and unapproved water sources, said Rashmi Deshmukh, Ector County’s chief sanitary officer. All meat in the United States must pass through USDA-inspected facilities that test for things like mad cow before it’s released for public consumption.
“With unauthorized food sales, we don’t know where they get that meat or how they prepare it,” Deshmukh said. “People sometimes have small children in diapers and if someone is cooking at home, they can be handling the baby at the same time and that can lead to possible contamination. Then there is also the risk of pets. Cats jump on the counter and then if they lick any of the food items, this can also lead to diseases that can be spread from animals to humans.
As for the water, the city of Odessa routinely tests the water to make sure it’s safe, but well water is not tested and can easily become contaminated, Upchurch said.
“With water wells, there are several different ways of contamination, but a lot of what we see is lack of septic systems or improperly constructed septic systems that then contaminate the water wells,” Upchurch said.
“Some people put a makeshift tank in the ground and call it good and never mess with it again. But if it’s not sewage-rated or waste-rated, those tanks split and crack. They get crushed under dirt and rocks and things like that. People drive over them and then they don’t even realize it, and before they know it, their water is contaminated. But it’s not just their water, it’s everyone around them. So it leads to neighborhoods that have no water at all because their groundwater is so contaminated,” Upchurch said.
People assume that just because they live in the county there are no laws or rules, and that’s simply not the case, Garcia said.
There are also times when oil waste, chemical waste and household cleaning products are dumped, Upchurch said.
“It’s all just starting to move down, and we have very shallow groundwater here, so it’s important not to contaminate the groundwater because we don’t have a lot of it,” she said.
The health department is required to investigate and report to the state all confirmed cases of foodborne and waterborne diseases. They should be able to stop such diseases before there is an outbreak, Garcia said.
In 2015, nearly 30 people fell victim to shigellosis in Ector County. Many were students in the Ector County Independent School District. The following year, a local Mexican restaurant was closed for days after a dozen people tested positive for Salmonella, seven of them restaurant employees.
How sick a person gets depends on the individual, Garcia said. The elderly, children and those with underlying health problems tend to get sick more often than others.
“We have to trace back an investigation where we have to determine where that person ate in the last 24 to 48 hours and determine if the foods that they ate could potentially cause these illnesses,” Garcia said. “So if it’s coming from someone’s home, there’s no way to trace it back. So if we have a large group of people who ate from an illegal vendor and they all got sick, it’s going to be very, very difficult for us to trace that back to a specific location.
Inspectors do not issue citations to businesses and individuals to make money for the county or city, Garcia said. In fact, most aren’t cited at all unless they’re repeat offenders, and even then the fines are small, she said.
Upchurch also stressed that inspectors follow laws imposed by state lawmakers. They are not laws created by city or county officials.
“Our ultimate goal is to protect the public and keep everybody safe,” Garcia said. “The citation process is a long process for us. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of red tape and it’s something we really don’t want to do unless it gets to the point where it’s continuous and we have to go down that road.”
Investigators are putting an emphasis on educating people, Garcia said.
“Usually when we catch vendors selling illegally, we talk to them, give them (the checklist) and say, ‘We’d be happy to help you come into compliance.’ We will be happy to help you start your business and sell your grandmother’s food or whatever recipes you have,” Garcia said. “We very rarely take all their food and cite them the first time we catch them. We use this as an educational time to provide this information.
Many people don’t realize they need permits, and those who do don’t realize how easy the process is, Deshmukh said. It often takes only two weeks if the kitchen equipment has already been purchased.
Upchurch said, “Our goal is for them to be able to succeed and be legal, and for the community to have…,”
“Good quality food,” said Deshmukh, finishing Upchurch’s thought.
The only people who can sell food without a permit from the health department are those who sell food that won’t spoil if it’s not kept at the right temperature for certain periods of time, Deshmukh said.
Things containing meat and dairy products will go bad if left out; baked goods such as cakes, jams, jellies, candies and condiments are gone, she said.
The Ministry of Health has tried to make it as easy as possible for people to start working; they even provide restaurants, food trucks and temporary vendors with a checklist of the items inspectors look for when they come to visit, Deshmukh said.
“So it’s like we’re providing them with a cheat sheet,” Deshmukh said. “This process is really simple and we help people who don’t have enough resources if they need more time to comply. We work with them. We offer them advice on what they can do and recommendations.”
Provision of resources
The health department often works with people who put on fundraisers, whether it’s a one-day funeral fundraiser, a multi-day event or a seasonal thing, Garcia said. They often put people in touch with churches or social organizations that may be willing to borrow or rent out their kitchens so they can do whatever it takes to raise funds, even if it’s a last-minute thing.
The five health inspectors in the county are quite busy. They are responsible for conducting at least two inspections each year at more than 700 businesses in Odessa and unincorporated Ector County. They also inspect new restaurants and food vendors, initiate inspections based on complaints, and carry out re-inspections. They also inspect septic tanks, foster homes, kindergartens, schools, swimming pools and churches and civic organizations with kitchens.
Inspectors get calls from citizens about unauthorized food vendors anywhere from once a month to half a dozen a month, Garcia said.
Upchurch acknowledged that many people believe inspectors are confiscating food for themselves, but reiterated that they are confiscating food because they are not sure it is safe to eat. She also pointed out that seized food is described and destroyed in front of multiple people, per health department policy.
“If we go into a restaurant and they have spoiled food or food with a temperature, we also have them dispose of those items at our place at that time. It is simply a process that takes place throughout the state of Texas. Doesn’t target or pick on anyone; every situation is treated the same,” Upchurch said.