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Why the Great Minnesota Get Together isn’t the Great Minnesota Get-sick Together

Thank a health inspector.

State Fair food
MinnPost illustration by Corey Anderson

Between hot temperatures, teenagers working in temporary food service jobs, hundreds of thousands of people and all the dairy, meat and grease, the State Fair sort of seems like the perfect recipe for foodborne illness.

But for the most part, the State Fair’s food facilities are pretty clean. That’s the good news MinnPost learned after reviewing more than 200 State Fair food inspection from last year. (This year’s reports won’t be publicly available till after the fair.)

The Department of Health inspects most vendors at the fair, with the exception of those who use manufactured or pre-packaged food (think cotton candy and kettle corn) and those that sell baked goods (think Sweet Martha’s), which are done by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

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Food checks

The process of making sure food at the fair is safe starts long before the State Fair does. Each year, the Health Department reviews plans for new fair food vendors and existing vendors’ plans to replace equipment or renovate facilities.

“It’s not just something we do an inspection and we’re done. We work really closely with the State Fair Board and the vendors throughout the year,” said Wendy Spanier, a field operations supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Health’s food, pools and lodging services division. “We look at their menu and food flow and how they’re going to process things … and identify where there could be problems before they’re actually operating.”

Sarah Conboy
Minnesota Department of Health
Minnesota Department of Health food inspector Sarah Conboy checks the temperature of food for a food stand at the Minnesota State Fair.
Once things get up and running, though, inspectors get busy. Eighteen inspectors, plus several supervisors, fan out across the fair in the first couple days to examine the food preparation and serving operations of every vendor under MDH’s purview.

Code violations that need immediate attention are written up as critical. Violations that are important, but not quite as important are non-critical.

Inspectors help employees fix problems when they can — whether it has to do with moving food storage off the floor of a facility, reminding staff of proper handwashing procedures or making sure food is kept at the right temperature.

When something can’t be fixed right away or if there are lots of violations, the Health Department often does follow-up inspections.


So what kind of food code violations do inspectors find at the fair?

2018 records give an overall picture of what can come up. Since last year’s reports don’t necessarily point to any risks this year, we’re not naming names.

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Of about 240 initial inspection reports MinnPost reviewed, roughly half had no violations — critical or non-critical — to speak of upon initial inspection.

“No violations observed. Soda being successfully poured into single service cups without issue,” an inspector wrote in a report for a soda booth.

Sarah Conboy
Minnesota Department of Health
Conboy checks the sanitizer for a food stand at the Minnesota State Fair.
About a quarter of vendors inspected had only non-critical violations, and a quarter had one or more critical violations.

Recurring themes in food-related health code violations at the Minnesota State Fair had to do with food not being kept at the right temperature, handwashing, or sanitizer for dishwashing not having enough chlorine.

Some of the other interesting violations involved power drills, nosebleeds and too-warm ceviche:

  • One stand was using a household power drill to mix corn dog batter, a non-critical violation. On a follow-up inspection, the drill was still being used to mix the batter.
  • A stand got a follow-up inspection after a complaint that an employee had a nosebleed. The vendor was not issued a violation, but inspectors “discussed employee hygiene and handwashing.”
  • Shrimp cocktail cups were being filled at a house instead of in an industrial kitchen. The vendor was issued a critical violation. Upon follow-up inspection, the cups were filled in an approved facility.
  • A food stand was issued a critical violation after an inspector found an air conditioning unit leaking into an ice bin. MDH ordered the ice discarded and the air conditioning repaired.
  • At one stand, ceviche, a raw seafood dish, was not being kept at a cold enough temperature, a critical violation.
  • Mouse droppings were found in one building, a non-critical violation. Staff were advised to use pest control.

Vendors with critical violations often fixed them on-site. When MDH made follow-up visits, inspectors often found issues resolved.

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In general, Spanier said vendors work cooperatively with inspectors and are quick to make changes at the advice of the health department. “They’re used to getting inspected. They know our inspectors and they want to have safe food as much as we do,” she said.

In her nearly three decades with the Department of Health, Spanier said she can’t recall any outbreaks of foodborne illness at the Minnesota State Fair.