On Sanitation

   The Coconino County Department of Public Health is taking a new role in Grand Canyon Food Service and Sanitation. At the request of and in cooperation with Federal and State officials, the CCDPH is developing a program to permit and inspect food service commissaries in the Grand Canyon. By the beginning of next year, all outfitters will be required to obtain a food license, and river trip kitchens will be, on occasion, visited by inspectors from the county.

   In a letter to commercial river companies in April of this year, Marlene Gaither of CCDPH noted that in spite of obvious difficulties in providing food service on grand Canyon river trips, no program existed to deal with the specific needs and problems of Grand Canyon river companies.

   Currently, the river industry exists in what amounts to a regulatory vacuum. Although the County Health Code requires all establishments that handle or serve food to have food licenses, Grand Canyon outfitters have ignored or perhaps been unaware of this requirement. Although guidelines for Colorado River trip sanitation have been developed by both the NPS and the Arizona Department of Health Services Division of Disease Control, efforts to implement these guidelines have been sporadic at best.

   Outfitters generally have some place where food is packed in preparation for trips; while these facilities are subject to the same licensing requirements and sanitary regulations that apply to restaurants, grocery stores, food wholesalers, soup kitchens, and other places where food is handled, the NPS has never taken an active interest in inspecting or regulating these facilities, nor has it raised the issue of proper licensing. Consequently, most (if not all) outfitters are deficient in some respect when it comes to pre-trip food packing and handling.

   Kitchens on the river are unique. The code of existing standards for “non-specific places or operations” (everybody that doesn’t fall in some other category for which specific codes exist) requires food establishments to have, among other things, screened windows, water from an “approved source”, hot and cold running water, sewer connections, etc. It is the lack of these basic sanitary amenities that makes food service in the Grand Canyon unusual and, from the health department’s point of view, especially risky.

   Food handlers in all licensed establishments are required to have specific training in the basics of sanitation, in the form of a short course for food handlers taught a couple times each month by the county health department. River guides usually receive little or no formal instruction in food handling and sanitation, yet we work under conditions generally associated with travel in the third world: we generate our own potable water, cook in the midst of blowing sand and buzzing flies, and have no direct connection to any sewer. At any time, some of us are literally pissing in the water supply the rest of us...

   On a typical trip, a group of people - perhaps from all over the world - are confined with each other in what amounts to a more intimate association than is found in a typical First World household... where else would you be sharing a bathroom with up to 25 other people?

   People from diverse habitats - healthy and sick - along with their food and feces, travel in prolonged and intimate association on a combination Disneyland ride, drinking water supply, pissoir, and sometimes mother-humper white-water blender.

   Everything considered, it’s amazing that food service on Grand Canyon river trips works as well as it does. The health department, with an eye to protecting the public, believes that things could be improved.

   As I understand it, the new program has several implications that directly affect guides, outfitters, and their clients:

   Outfitters will be required to upgrade warehouse food packing facilities to existing codes, if they aren’t already in compliance, before they can obtain the required food license.

   Guides will eventually be required to complete some training in the basics of sanitation, through a course to be offered by the health department. The content of the course will directly address the unique hazards of our industry, and will focus on the proper ways and means of minimizing the risks we face.

   The NPS food handling and sanitation guidelines will be revised, as needed, and Coconino County Department of Public Health will be making inspections on the river and in the warehouse.

   Ultimately, we all stand to gain from this process, but everyone needs to understand that guides, outfitters, and, passengers will need to become more sanitation conscious on our trips. Some old bad habits will need to be broken, and we may need to rethink how and why we do some of the things we take for granted.

   If you have any further questions, you might give Marlene Gaither a call: 779-5164 extension 12. She’s been on the river, understands that our situation is unique, and I’m sure will do her best in developing sensible and effective guidelines for our benefit.

Drifter Smith, AZRA