John Osburn has patrolled the streets of Sturgis and haunts of the hills during the rally for the past dozen years to ensure a roadside hoagie isn’t filled with, among other things, regret.
With close to half a million people invading the Black Hills for the rally each August, the mouths to feed are plentiful. So, too, are the food vendors, who set up shop from Main Street in Sturgis to Boxelder Forks Road in Nemo. Osburn and his Department of Health coworkers do their best to keep them all in line.
This year, Osburn estimates his team of between three and eight Department of Health inspectors — it varies each day — have completed more than 300 inspections. On average, each inspection results in one or two violations. Though they have the ability to shut down a vendor, they have yet to do so this year and only go to such lengths when there is an imminent health risk such as chemicals being mixed in food, contaminated food being served, or if, say, a food handler is found to have Hepatitis A.
“That’s not typical,” Osburn said Thursday. “Our main focus is to provide the operator feedback to prevent a food-borne illness. We’re there for prevention, not necessarily just to shut everybody down.”
As part of an inspection, vendors must demonstrate they maintain the proper food temperatures for cooking and storage, food handling and display, and that the washing of utensils, hands and food preparation stations is adequate.
Temporary food vendors have limitations on the types of food they can sell — “foods such as custards, meat salads, or those requiring multiple preparation steps are prohibited” per the state inspection checklist — and must have hot water for hand/utensil washing, a floor of asphalt, concrete, wood or other similar, cleanable material, and ensure the area is free of insects. A temporary vending license is good for 14 days.
Foods that are out of the mandated temperature range — 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below for storage of cold food, 135 degrees and above for hot food, 145 degrees for seafood/pork/beef/lamb, 155 degrees for ground meat, 165 degrees for poultry — is the most common violation, Osburn said. That food is discarded.
Vendors with violations are visited more often than those without issues to ensure they’ve made corrections. If a complaint is made, an inspector typically heads straight for the vendor stand to investigate. Fines are only typically levied when there is a repeat infraction or when a vendor is ordered to shut down their business but continues to operate. The Department of Health doesn’t keep records on the number or nature of infractions at the rally or other fairs and carnivals statewide but maintains records of vendor conduct for a year or two.
When asked if the food vendors at Sturgis were any better or worse than the typical temporary food vendor in the state, Osburn said it was just the biggest and longest event. He was tight-lipped when asked for an interesting story or two.
“I’ve seen some kind of weird stuff over the years,” he said without going into detail.
But Obsurn did acknowledge one food-vendor violation that was relatively unique to the rally: scantily clad cooks and food handlers. A painted lady doling out poutine, perhaps? Osburn wouldn’t comment.