I Will NOT Buy That for a Dollar

Way back a decade ago, before people had their own personal food blogs and everyone just hung out on LiveJournal, there was a group blog on that site about food. The premise of this group was the same as your typical food blog today – people wrote posts about food, shared recipes, etc., the only difference being that there were hundreds of people who all posted to the same blog. One of the regular contributors to this LiveJournal group would post recipes and photos of the dishes he made, and always, somewhere in the photo of the dish, was his cat. It was his “thing”. Sometimes the cat was sitting on the dinner table, next to the completed dish. Often the shot showed the cat on the counter, next to a rolled out pastry or a bowl of batter. These posts elicited two types of responses; those of us who were utterly grossed out by the proximity of dirty kitty feet to a food preparation surface, and those who thought it was perfectly okay.

It’s that second group that worries me.

There have been various articles in the media over the past week or so about one Toronto woman’s idea to hold a copy of an “underground” food market that originated in San Francisco. The premise being that people bring food that they have prepared in their homes and gather in a market-type setting to sell their wares. Hassel Aviles thinks that this is something the city wants and needs. She thinks it’s such a great idea, in fact, that she’s already created a website, despite not having anything confirmed with regards to venue, licenses, insurance, or, oh yeah, those pesky health and safety regulations.

Because the city is pretty darn adamant that food prepared in home kitchens cannot be sold to the public. When people are cooking in a space that doesn’t meet health and safety standards for commercially-prepared food, when there’s a possibility that those lovely cookies you’re taking to the bake sale might have had a cat walk across them at some point, there is a very real possibility that people are going to get sick, and the city would like you to please at least keep that contained to as small a number of people as possible. That’s why it’s perfectly okay for you to feed your friends and family a pie crust that the cat has walked across, but not complete strangers.

A few years back, I wrote a piece about the rules and regulations required to run a food business out of your home. Those rules haven’t changed. Anyone legally participating in Aviles’ underground food market would be required to, at minimum, have a food handler’s certificate and prepare their food in a commercial kitchen. That’s the case for any and all food sold in the city, even at outdoor festivals and events, and there’s unlikely to be any way or reason that Aviles would be allowed to get around it.

She could go ahead and do it illegally (which is sort of the premise of the whole “underground” bit, anyway), but I would be very wary of participating as a vendor. Take note – preparing food for sale in a home kitchen is not only illegal from a health and safety standpoint, in rental situations it can also void your lease, and in all situations it can void your insurance. And if someone did get sick from your food, what would you do? (That’s not a rhetorical question. Seriously, if you’re considering taking part, you’ve gotta have a “worst case scenario” plan.)

Didn’t think about insurance? I don’t know if Aviles has yet, but someone should be doing the research. Restaurants are required to carry liability insurance in case someone gets sick from their food, but who takes responsibility if someone gets sick from something purchased at an underground market? The vendor? The organizer? Mishandling of food can kill people, and Aviles is not just talking about fairly neutral items like cookies, but hot prepared food.

No doubt people will think of underground supper clubs like Charlie’s Burgers. But the Charlies all come from the food service industry. All of the chefs who have cooked at Charlie Burger dinners are professionals – which means they all have food handlers certificates, and they all know (and enforce on a daily basis among their own staff) proper food handling techniques. Depending on the venue, some or all of the prep is also done off-site, in the chef’s own commercial kitchen.

Undoubtedly some of you out there are going, “But, but, but… Bakesale For Japan!” It was a nice idea, and it raised a lot of money for a very worthy cause. But it was illegal, pure and simple. Yes, the stuff made by professional chefs and bakers who cooked their donations in commercial kitchens was above board, but all the stuff people made at home… nope. Uh-uh. No way.

Am I being overly paranoid and anal retentive about this? Probably. But I’ve had food poisoning too many times; it’s something I don’t wish upon my worst enemy. And in a situation where you’re buying food from strangers cooked in their own homes, you have no way of knowing how clean things are. You have no way of knowing whether they’ve wiped down their work surfaces with a cloth loaded with bacteria. You have no way of knowing if they unconsciously lick the spoon and then put it back in the bowl of frosting. And you have no way of knowing if their cat, fresh from the litter box, walked across the counter on their rolled-out cookie dough.

Aviles has no way of knowing that either.

And that’s why, if it happens (and I have my doubts it ever will) I won’t be supporting an underground food market in Toronto.

This post originally appeared on TasteTO.