By Anne Blythe
People go to the annual North Carolina State Fair for all kinds of reasons.
It might be the topsy-turvy rides. Or perhaps the Village of Yesteryear and the antique farm machinery.
Often, though, the food is a major attraction.
Maybe it’s the Ostrich Smashburger or the Politician Fries — full of fried bologna and topped with just the right amount of cheese — that tickle the taste buds.
The big draw could be the Pulled Pork Mac & Cheese Danish, the Deep Fried Gimbap: Korean Sushi Roll, the Boozie Cupcakes and Flavored Shooters, the Bacon Mac & Cheese Sundae or maybe the more traditional popcorn, cotton candy and candied apples.
No matter what gets a fairgoer’s salivary glands going, a team of inspectors gives the vendors’ fairground facilities more than a once-over to ensure food safety.
Peek behind the curtain
On Wednesday, the day before the fair was scheduled to swing open its gates to the hundreds of thousands of people expected to flock to the Raleigh fairgrounds during the next 11 days, Wake County food inspectors made the rounds.
Media crews were invited to tag along.
Although the inspections had been going on since Monday, Ginger Johnson, an environmental health specialist, and inspectors Cris LeClair, Peri Sellew and Patricia Sabby gave reporters and the public a peek at what they look for before granting a vendor a Temporary Food Establishment permit.
The first stop was La Taqueria, which serves tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas, nachos and more with grilled steak, chicken, shrimp and even cow tongue.
Sabby, a Spanish-speaker on the inspection team, checked temperatures in food storage areas, looked at water lines into the temporary quarters, opened drawers and cabinets and went down a checklist before any food could be prepared. She looked in the tented storage area and tested the strength of a cleaning solution that would be used on surfaces to ward off any food-borne illnesses.
She handed the vendor a sign to post on the premises letting all employees know about hand-washing rules.
At Fat Boys BBQ & Catering, owner and pitmaster Bobby Scott looked forward to seeing the inspection team take a look inside the spot he has occupied at the fairgrounds since 2019.
Cooking beef and pork is something he does in addition to a full-time job, said Scott, a Johnston County resident.
At the fair, he enjoys seeing his fellow vendors and the customers who line up for his pulled pork, brisket, mac and cheese and a deep fried pulled pork and coleslaw creation that he calls the “Redneck Eggroll.”
“Typically at the state fair you have the same booth and you get used to the people around you and everything,” Scott said. “Occasionally, there’s an opportunity for an upgrade or a different location. I’ve told staff here, ‘I’m very happy where I’m at.’”
Scott has been cooking since Oct. 6 because, as he said, he serves a lot of bulk meats.
The first inspection he underwent at the fairgrounds several years ago did not result in the immediate granting of a Temporary Food Establishment permit.
The problem the inspectors could not look beyond was the temperature of the meat being used for the eggrolls, he explained. There also was an issue with a water hose.
Scott found quick remedies for both problems with quick equipment changes at his booth, including a special meat chiller that gets his fixings to a temperature at which he can prepare the egg rolls as intended.
42 inspectors, 150 vendors
The glimpse of the inspections on Wednesday was only a small portion of the preparations that started on Monday.
That’s when 42 inspectors began the process of ensuring the safety of the 150 food stands, trucks and tents before the gates open on Thursday.
Those initial examinations are not the last of the inspections, though. Inspectors are on the fairgrounds every day of the fair.
They even do one overnight stint to make sure food is being stored and trash is being disposed of as the vendors say it is. Many of the inspectors are as intrigued as the fairgoers about what will be dished up each year.
This is the third state fair in which Johnson has worked with food inspection.
“It’s fun,” Johnson said. “That’s why I have this position — I love it.”
It’s also important business, she added.
“We look to see that the food is handled in a sanitary manner, things are brought in at correct temperatures and are maintained at correct temperatures throughout the event,” Johnson said. “We look to see that things are washed as they should be, that all the equipment, utensils are clean and in good repair. So pretty much everything going on.”