Save the grills

August 13, 2008

I missed the column in Sunday’s JG by Mindy Waldron, an administrator with the county health department, but I heard Pat White talking about it on WOWO on my drive home yesterday, so I hunted it up. The department has gotten a reputation for being a bunch of rule-obsessed, meddling busybodies because of its apparent attempt to kill outdoor cooking by restaurants. Her goal in the column was to convince us the department is really doing the best it can considering a lack of direction from the state and is just being reasonably concerned about everybody’s health and safety. I don’t think she succeeded:

And even though Indiana’s Food Code doesn’t specifically forbid permanent outdoor cooking, it doesn’t specifically account for it either, which puts Indiana counties in a difficult position when regulating this issue for the safety of the consumer.

So what happens when a law is silent on an issue? You rely on an interpretation of the law by the official agency in charge. Years ago, we did just that when we asked state health officials for such an interpretation and did not receive one.

So in the absence of any written guidance, we created an option locally for restaurants to grill outside on a semi-permanent basis for up to 10 days a month. We did it as a compromise and with the knowledge that it was not a perfect solution.

Last year, we again asked the Indiana State Health Department for their interpretation on this issue and this time we were told which sections of the food rule should apply to these types of cooking operations. Those sections are very detailed and go far beyond what our current 10-day permit requires. Clearly, we are deviating from what the state health department recommends, and so we needed to come into compliance with their interpretation.

Forgive me for being thick if there’s something here I’m missing, but doesn’t the first sentence pretty much negate everything that follows? State law doesn’t forbid outdoor cooking but doesn’t “account for it, either.” So isn’t the “guidance” or “interpretation” from the state just advisory? If the state law is silent on the issue, how can you possibly seek an interpretation of the law? How is this not a local issue on which the local authority is trying to duck responsibility for the actions it has taken?

“And finally,” she writes, ” it’s been suggested that the health department is making this way too complicated and we should just find a way to work it out.” Well. yeah. If you’re seen as being silly and controlling on this issue, you will be seen that on other ones far more serious, and people won’t pay as much attention to you as they should. Find a way to work it out. It’s not that complicated, really. Most jurisdictions in the country — and in this state — seem to have figured it out.

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