Sep. 23—The Ector County Health Department went viral recently. Health inspectors posted on Facebook they'd seized 25 dozen tamales from a street vendor who didn't have a permit and 1,800 people commented, most of them negatively.
The inspectors were accused of being on a "sick power trip." Officials were also accused of extortion and seizing the tamales in order to eat them.
Ector County Health Department Director Brandy Garcia and her staff refuted those allegations, saying they are only trying to prevent people from eating contaminated food and getting sick, or worse.
"We're here to help the community. We're 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, a county water quality specialist and investigator. "We're not here to try to make your life harder or hurt feelings or to target anyone or hurt anyone's business. We want to protect the community from outbreaks and sickness. We've had enough of that over the last couple of years, and if we can prevent that, that's what we're trying to do."
Every year, Ector County documents roughly 700 cases of people who have become ill due to contaminated food or water, and those are just the cases that have been reported and verified 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 3,000 people die annually from food-borne diseases in the United States. Another 128,000 are hospitalized.
The number one job of health inspectors is to try to prevent people from contracting potentially deadly illnesses like Salmonella, E.coli, Listeria, botulism, Campylobacter, Norovirus and Shigellosis, Garcia said.
There are several ways for food to become contaminated — including through the use of unapproved products and unapproved water sources, said Rashmi Deshmukh, Ector County Health Department's chief sanitarian. All meat in the United States has to go through USDA-inspected facilities, who test for such things as Mad Cow Disease, before it's distributed for public consumption.
"With unpermitted food sales, we do not know where they're getting that meat from or how they're preparing it," Deshmukh said. "People sometimes have little children in diapers and if somebody's cooking at home, they might be handling the baby at the same time and that can lead to possible contamination. Then there's also risk of having pets. Cats jump on the counter and then if they lick any of the food products that can also lead to diseases that can spread from animals to humans."
As far as water, the City of Odessa routinely tests the water to ensure it's safe, but well water isn't tested and can easily become contaminated, Upchurch said.
"With water wells, there are a few different ways of contamination, but a lot of what we see is a lack of septic systems or improperly constructed septic systems that then contaminate the water wells," Upchurch said.
"Some people put in a makeshift tank in the ground and call that good and never mess with it again. But if it's not rated for sewage or it's not rated for waste, those tanks split and they crack. They crush under dirt and rocks and things like that. People drive over them, and then they don't even realize it and so then before they know it, their water was contaminated. But, it's not just their water, it's everybody around them. So that leads to neighborhoods that have no water at all, because their groundwater has been so contaminated," Upchurch said.
People assume that just because they live out in the county, there are no laws or rules and that's just not the case, Garcia said.
There are also times when oil waste, chemical waste and household cleaning products get dumped, Upchurch said.
"All of that just starts to move down, and we have a very shallow water table here so it's important that you don't contaminate the groundwater, because we don't have a whole lot of it," she said.
The health department is required to investigate and report all confirmed cases of food-borne and water-borne illnesses to the state. They need to be able to stop such illnesses before there's an outbreak, Garcia said.
In 2015, nearly 30 people fell victim to Shigellosis in Ector County. Many were students within the Ector County Independent School District. The following year, a local Mexican restaurant was shut down 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. Elderly people, children and those with underlying health conditions tend to get sicker than others.
"We have to do trace back investigations where we have to determine where this person ate in the last 24 to 48 hours and determine if the foods that they ate could potentially cause these diseases," Garcia said. "So if it's coming from someone's home, we have no way of tracing that back. So if we had a large group of individuals who ate from an illegal vendor, and they all got sick, it would be very, very difficult for us to trace that back to a certain location."
The inspectors do not issue citations to businesses and individuals in order to make money for the county or the city, Garcia said. In fact, most aren't cited at all unless they are repeat offenders and even then, the fines are small, she said.
Upchurch also stressed the inspectors are upholding laws imposed by state legislators. 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 lengthy process for us. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of paperwork, and it's something that we really don't want to do unless it comes to the point where it's continuous and we have to go that route."
The investigators place an emphasis on educating people, Garcia said.
"Usually when we catch vendors who are illegally selling, we talk with them, we give them the (checklist), and we tell them 'We would love to help you get into compliance. We would love to help you start your business and sell your grandmother's food or whatever recipes that you have,'" Garcia said. "We very rarely take all their food and give them citations the first time that we catch them. We use that as an educational time to provide that information."
Many people don't realize they need permits and those who do, don't realize just how easy the process is, Deshmukh said. Oftentimes, it takes as little as two weeks if the kitchen equipment has already been purchased.
Upchurch said, "Our goal is for them to be able to succeed and to be legal and for the community to have...,"
"Good quality food," Deshmukh said, finishing Upchurch's thought.
The only people who can sell food without a health department permit are those who are selling food that won't go bad if they're not kept at the right temperature for specific periods of time, Deshmukh said.
Things containing meat and dairy products will go bad if left out; baked goods like cakes, jams, jellies, candy and spice rubs will not, she said.
The health department has tried to make it as easy as possible for people to get up and running; they even provide a checklist to restaurants, food trucks and temporary vendors of the items inspectors look for when coming for a visit, Deshmukh said.
"So it's like we're providing them a cheat sheet," Deshmukh said. "This process is really simple, and we help with people who do not have enough resources, if they need more time to come into compliance. We work with them. We offer them advice as to what they can do and recommendations."
The health department often works with people who are holding fundraisers, whether it's a one-day event to raise funds for a funeral, a multiple-day event or a seasonal thing, Garcia said. They often put people in touch with churches or social organizations that might be willing to loan or rent out their kitchens so they can do what they need to do to raise funds, even if it's a last minute thing.
The county's five health inspectors are kept quite busy. They're responsible for conducting at least two inspections every year on more than 700 establishments throughout Odessa and unincorporated Ector County. They also inspect new restaurants and food vendors, launch complaint-based inspections and do re-inspections. They also inspect septic tanks, foster homes, daycares, schools, swimming pools and churches and civic organizations with kitchens.
The inspectors get calls from citizens about unpermitted food vendors anywhere from once a month to half a dozen per month, Garcia said.
Upchurch acknowledged many people believe the inspectors are seizing food for themselves, but reiterated they seize the food because they're unsure it's safe to consume. She also pointed out that seized food is inventoried and destroyed under the eyes of multiple people, per health department policy.
"If we go into a restaurant and they have spoiled food, or food out of temperature, we also make them dispose of those items with us, on site at that time. It's just a process that's done throughout the whole state of Texas. It's not targeting anybody or picking on anybody; every situation is treated the same," Upchurch said.