Churches not exempt from health regulations

By Megan R. Harrell

Star Staff

When the holiday season arrives, churches and benefit organizations come out of the woodwork to serve hot food to members of the community. These nonprofit groups offer dinners to a large portion of the population oblivious to the fact that they, too, fall under health department regulations.
   One local church recently discovered the state has a say in how it serves food to the public. The Prayer Tabernacle, State Line Rd., sponsors a weekly auction held at an alternative building at Journey's End. The non-denominational church also serves hot food at a weekly auction, which health department officials say is a violation of state regulations.
   Gary Barnett, overseer of the Prayer Tabernacle, said he was approached by local health department workers and asked to stop serving food at the auction.
   "We can't fix any food there and can't bring in any prepared food and distribute it to everybody else," Barnett said. "They said the food is only entitled for the church people and that we are violating state law."
   Barnett said his church uses the dinners as part of an outreach ministry, and that they are responsible for feeding as many as 15 to 20 families in the county each month. "We are out to feed the hungry, to save people, and get them going to church," Barnett said.
   In order to comply with state regulations, the church would need to install a kitchen at the auction site. Barnett said the changes would cost close to $1,000, and the church cannot afford to make the changes at this time.
   Tennessee state law (T.C.A. 68-14-301), lays out the guidelines for church dinners. It defines a food service establishment as, "any establishment, place, or location, whether permanent, temporary, seasonal or itinerant, where food is prepared and the public is offered to be served, including, but not limited to, foods, vegetables, and/or beverages not in an original package or container."
   Walter Nannie, with the Tennessee Health Department, admits the law is too broad to regulate all church dinners, but said the department is attempting to buckle down on churches violating regulations.
   In January 2002 the former director of the health department, Richard Cochran, issued a memo asking all officials to hone in on churches serving food to large numbers of people on a semi-routine basis.
   Many church officials think because the law exempts them from paying for food service permit fees, that they are also exempt from health department regulations. However, the law states, "such exemption is expressly limited to the payment of fees and does not exempt these organizations from any other provisions of this part."
   Health department officials are making concentrated efforts to inspect churches that serve more than 52 meals during a fiscal year. Nannie said the food laws and regulations are designed to protect the public from food that is unsanitary.
   "We have a policy to try to help us fairly enforce the rules and protect the public," Nannie said. "We are trying to identify the places and inspect them and help them to comply with the rules of the food establishment program."
   There are 111 health department and 50 contract county officials working to identify churches that are serving more than 52 meals a year. He said the recent emphasis on churches is the result of more definitive standards set forth by the director.
   "This is the first time we have had a definite guideline to know what to inspect so we are not going about it haphazard," Nannie said. "We know we cannot get all of them but need to be more consistent on the church business."
   The Food and Drug Administration has estimated that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States every year.