Cedar Creek Grist Mill cancels food event over health rules

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Saturday’s Bread and Butter Day at the Cedar Creek Grist Mill has been canceled in a dispute over food safety rules with county health officials.

Late Thursday, the Grist Mill posted a statement that new rules and regulations imposed by Clark County Public Health “are not allowing us to continue with our monthly events as we have in the past.”

The only event that’s still definitely a go is autumn apple cider pressing, set for Oct. 26. Occasions such as Strawberry Shortcake Day on June 29 and Blueberry Pancake Day on July 27 are on hold.

Clark County Health Officer Alan Melnick said the rules are not new, that the Cedar Creek Grist Mill has been out of compliance with state health code for years, and that the county offered numerous suggestions and work-arounds — including a temporary permit for the day’s event that would have cost just $195, he said.

“Offering food to the public requires a permit from us to ensure that food is being stored and prepared and served in a way that protects the public from illness,” said Melnick. “We’re in this business to protect the public.”

But a temporary permit still would have imposed rules that are simply unacceptable to Grist Mill volunteers as they try to bring history to life, according to Jeffrey Berry. He’s a longtime volunteer and two-term president of the nonprofit Friends of the Cedar Creek Grist Mill, which owns and operates what supporters like to call a “working museum.”

Even with a permit, Berry said, bread that’s baked off-site in volunteers’ residential kitchens — as it always has been — would have to be sliced up, and the slices individually wrapped in plastic before being transported to the site for Bread and Butter Day. Fry bread that’s always been cooked on-site would no longer be permitted.

And, crucially, the butter spread on that baked bread would have to be obtained elsewhere. Butter churned by visitors’ hands would be for fun and education only, never for consumption.

“Butter churning may be demonstrated ONLY,” a county memo to the Grist Mill says. “Individual butter packages may be given out as an alternative.” 

Plastic wrap and butter pats are not at all what volunteers have in mind, said Berry.

“For a historic mill to have to do prepackaged slices of bread and little restaurant pats of butter — it flies in the face of what we’re trying to create here,” Berry said. “There’s nothing historical about any of that. In our events we try to recreate the whole historic atmosphere.”

County: Claims not accurate

Marissa Armstrong, spokeswoman for Clark County Public Health, said the restrictions claimed by Berry are not accurate.

“With a permit (either the annual permit or individual temporary permits), the Grist Mill would be able to prepare and serve foods similarly to how they have done in the past,” Armstrong said in an email.

“For example, bread could be sliced and served at the Grist Mill. Butter could be churned and consumed at the Grist Mill. They would also be able to do the fry bread on site,” Armstrong’s email said. “The permit would ensure that our staff have worked with the Grist Mill volunteers to ensure proper food handling and temperature control of foods.”

She also said that the county restrictions on consuming butter churned on-site would apply only if a permit had not been not obtained.

“Similarly, the pancake event would also be allowed (pancakes cooked up and served on site) if the Grist Mill chooses to obtain a permit,” Armstrong said.

The permit would require at least one person to be on site with a food handlers card during an event — something that can be acquired through an online course for $10 — but not all volunteers would need the card, Melnick said.

Long history

The Cedar Creek Grist Mill, east of Woodland at 43907 N.E. Grist Mill Road, has been grinding flour, pressing apples and generating other foodstuffs the old-fashioned way since 1876.

It will be open this weekend during regular operating hours — 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday — but Berry said what will be happening there is “the normal milling of flour and corn meal, and probably a lot of explaining to people why they’re expecting bread but I’m not giving it to them.”

Melnick said he’s alarmed that Grist Mill volunteers are using social media to spread the word that they’ve been required to install a commercial kitchen. That idea never came from the Health Department, he said.

“We’re not imposing any new rules or regulations. We did not tell the Grist Mill to cancel any events. We did not tell them they have to construct a commercial kitchen,” Melnick said. “We understand that access to commercial kitchens can be challenging. They’ve known since late March that they could get the temporary permit.

“We don’t want to wipe out the Grist Mill. We want to bend over backwards to help them be in compliance,” Melnick said.

Berry wishes the Grist Mill could simply post some sort of blanket historical waiver. “One hundred and forty years ago, the government wouldn’t say I can’t make something and give it to my neighbor,” he said. 

North county highlight

Ironically, Berry said, it was the Grist Mill’s own due diligence that got it into trouble. “We had cider pressings for 12 or 15 years without any health department involvement at all,” he said. But because those events grew more popular, the Grist Mill invited health inspectors to take a look, he said. Berry remembers being worried about E. coli, which was in the news.

“They told us, ‘What you’re doing is great’,” he said. “We just had health inspections for the cider pressing, for the last decade.”

It was last year when those inspectors learned that the Grist Mill hosts more food-related events beyond pressing apples into cider. “They saw our list of other special events and said, ‘You should be permitted for all of these,’ ” Berry said.

That didn’t seem to pose any problem, Berry said, because the county added that it was considering a six-month permit “geared toward farmers markets” that would cover all the mill’s events. “They thought that was a great fit for us.”

Melnick said that concept of a six-month permit, which would still carry all the requirements of other permits but at a lower cost for seasonal events, did not advance and become policy.

Grist Mill volunteers and a member of the Clark County Council are expected to meet soon — but in the meantime, there’s been no break in the impasse, and on Thursday night, the Grist Mill announced the cancelation of Bread and Butter Day. (That was after The Columbian’s Weekend section, included in the Friday newspaper and including Bread and Butter Day, went to print.)

Berry said he has “no clue” how many people visit the Grist Mill in a year, but the last time he looked, the guest book — which most visitors don’t sign — included names from 42 states and nine nations. The county recently designated a Northern Clark County Scenic Drive that includes the Grist Mill, he noted.

“I believe we’re good for our economy, I believe we bring tourism revenue to the small towns up here,” he said. “We’re hoping we can get the county to change its stance in time for the rest of our summer events.”



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