Church dinners exempted from food inspections


Since last summer, a group of self-professed “church ladies” in Goodhue County have been working to save their church dinners, which they said were recently threatened by state health inspectors. Their efforts are represented in legislation that would exempt churches and other small nonprofit groups from certain Health Department food inspection requirements.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) and Sen. John Sterling Howe (R-Red Wing), HF637/ SF477* would grant certain organizations with tax-exempt status, such as churches, exemption from food regulation statutes. It would also affect organizations that are affiliated with or related to a sportsman organization.

The bill would also remove limitations to events that are organized by fraternal, sportsman, or patriotic organizations where home-prepared food is donated. The House passed the bill 128-2. The Senate passed the bill 58-5 on May 20. It now goes to Gov. Mark Dayton for action.

Pat Irrthum and Kathy Theel’s spat with the Health Department began after Goodhue County relinquished its food inspection service for nonprofits last year as a cost saving measure. The department took over the duties for the county and last year informed Irrthum and Theel, parishioners at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Zumbrota, and other area churches that they were in violation of a state law that requires permits for nonprofit events where homemade food is served. Irrthum testified in House and Senate health committees that her church never received previous communication prior to the health inspector’s arrival at their parish. The women contacted Drazkowski, who developed the legislation with Howe.

Other proponents of the bill testified that many of churches organize dinners and meals for fundraising or to feed the homeless. Department officials testified in opposition to the bill, citing recent examples of food poisoning at church dinners and other events that they say demonstrate the need for regulation.

Language was added to the legislation before its passage in the House and Senate that states church dinners would be exempt from inspection provided that a certified food manager, or a volunteer trained in a food safety course, trains the food preparation workers in safe food handling practices. The exemption does not apply to faith-based organizations at the state agricultural society or county fairs or to faith-based organizations that choose to apply for a license.