Missoula health department requiring food safety permits for First Friday venues

Barnaby Wilde plays at a downtown venue on a recent First Friday. The Missoula City-County Health Department is requiring businesses that offer food and beverages on First Friday to have a temporary food safety permit. (Missoula Current file photo)

Saying it’s needed for public safety, the Missoula City-County Health Department is set to enforce its food safety laws by requiring downtown businesses to buy a temporary permit when offering food and beverages on First Friday.

While some initially saw the change as a heavy handed approach to a non-problem, health officials said local businesses have warmed to the idea, and a series of workshops and letters have helped dispel initial misinformation.

“Since it’s new, people are trying to figure out what this process means and what it requires,” said Alisha Johnson, an environmental health specialist with the department. “In the beginning, folks got a message where it seemed heavy handed, but that wasn’t the message we were trying to give them. Now we’re having people come in and say it makes complete sense.”

Art galleries and shops across downtown Missoula have for years offered food and beverages on First Friday. The food has ranged from cheese to pretzels, while the drinks often include wine and beer.

But while the downtown venues weren’t required to have a food safety permit, those planning other events were, and Johnson said the health department acted to make the system equitable.

“We were getting a lot of phone calls from folks doing similar events who said nobody from First Friday was required to have a permit,” Johnson said. “We started looking at it and found they were right. It’s totally something that’s required. We need to be doing this for public health and safety.”

The review for a permit stands at $30 while the permit itself costs $115. Broken down, Johnson said, it equates to roughly $10 per First Friday event. Those who serve without a permit, however, could be fined more than $300.

Johnson said the crackdown isn’t intended to remove the Friday festivities or deter shops and galleries from serving food and drinks to customers. Many businesses have been receptive to the enforcement once they understand the need, she said, and nearly a dozen shops have already applied for a permit.

“We’ve had people come in and get a permit, and some have adjusted the way they do things so a permit isn’t required,” said Johnson. “We may see some of the complex, high-risk foods disappear, but I still think food and beverages will be served.”

Linda McCarthy, director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, said her organization has partnered with the health department to help its members work through the process of acquiring a temporary food safety permit.

McCarthy said public safety is a priority.

“The health department’s focus is to ensure those serving food and beverages to the public do so in a way that protects the health and well-being of the public,” McCarthy said. “Both the process and the cost of acquiring a TFS permit is nominal, but I think it’s a little intimidating for our businesses who do not serve food and beverage as their primary role.”

McCarthy said the Downtown Missoula Partnership and the health department will offer another workshop on March 8 from 8-10 a.m.