As more places in Porter County begin to open up and new construction moves forward, the divisions of the Porter County Health Department are ready to continue providing vital services to the community. With four divisions total—Food Service Division, Environmental Health Division, Nursing Division, and Vital Records Division—the department’s reach in the community ensures that Porter County continues to be a safe and growing place to live, work, and visit.
From health inspections and new permits to new construction and environmental inspections, the food and environmental divisions of the Porter County Health Department are out in the community providing a vast array of services with one goal in mind: public health.
Through the food division side of the department, Food Service Division Program Coordinator Sheila Paul and her team work closely with any restaurant, market, or institution that handles and sells food. The average person may immediately think of only restaurants and cafés, but the division connects with everything from the local gas station on the corner to elementary, middle, and high schools.
“We go out and do food safety inspections and licensing of all establishments that sell food,” Paul said. “It’s more than just restaurants; it’s your schools, grocery stores, convenience stores, fairs, farmers markets, festivals, food trucks, and more.”
Permits and Inspections
Along with inspecting all establishments that continue to operate in Porter County, the food division reviews plans and inspects any new or remodeled establishment prior to its opening, ensuring it is up to code and ready to safely open up to the public. When a new restaurant, café, store, or food truck is opening, the first step toward safely opening is to simply get in touch with the division.
“If someone is thinking of opening up, let’s say, a restaurant, the first step is to contact us,” Paul said. “We set them up right away with our plan review team. Our team will talk them through everything that is required and what they’re expected to do. Next, the restaurant will submit plans to us of the construction, the menu, and the storage facilities to make sure they are adequate for what they want to do.”
From there, the division works with the restaurant to partner with other agencies in the county. From the fire department to sending plans to Homeland Security (which is required of all physical structures), the division helps the restaurant navigate who to contact, building strong relationships with municipalities in the process.
“If a municipality hears of a new restaurant going in before we do, a lot of times they will contact us first to let us know so we can get in contact with the restaurant,” Paul said.
Once plans have been submitted and approved, the restaurant then is required to receive its Food Handler Certification, which certifies that the restaurant has at least one person on staff who is certified to safely and correctly handle food. The construction inspection is completed and based on the proposed designs and plans, the restaurant can apply for a Food Establishment Permit. Annual Full Service Retail Food Establishment Permits range in purpose and price based on the square footage of the establishment.
For establishments only opened for part of the year or for a short period of time, the division offers Partial Year Retail Food Establishment Permit and Temporary Event Food Vendor Permits. These permits cover seasonal food vendors and establishments opened for six months or less. This is the perfect option for these kinds of establishments since Porter County is home to a number of great fairs, festivals, and farmers markets.
In the past five years, the division has seen a rise in the food truck industry here in the Region. Though a welcomed innovation in the food retail business, the increase in the number of food trucks operating in the area requires new approaches to public health and safety.
“Many of the new permits and applications we are getting are from people looking to open a food truck,” Paul said. “We are getting people, because of COVID-19, who have either lost jobs or decided their career wasn’t for them, and they’re looking to make a major change in their life. Or maybe they’re looking to participate in the fairs and festivals we have in the area.”
“It’s an interesting—and exciting—challenge for us, however, because there are so many new innovations with food going on that the standard food code is not caught up to where the industry is,” she continued. “So people are doing new things with food, and we need to make sure it is safe to consume.”
Investigating and preventing foodborne illnesses and customer complaints is another of the division’s focuses. The food division works much like an investigative entity in these circumstances. Once a report of a foodborne illness is made, the division begins closely working with the nursing division and the state field epidemiologist to determine where the illness came from and prevent a larger-scale outbreak from occurring.
“The nurses will handle the patient side of things, trying to figure out what the illness is and what caused it, while we handle the food establishment side of things, getting their food histories for the past three days and going out to any place they may have gone to,” Paul said.
The division also works closely with its sister division, Environmental Health Division, for any brick-and-mortar building that needs to hook up to a septic or well system.
“We also work with IDEM if it’s a good system to test the water, and we make sure the restaurant stays up on that,” Paul said. “Any time there is an establishment that might have a sewage backup, we are working with the environmental division to get that under control.”
Paul emphasized the role the division plays in the community, remarking how their goal is to be educators and partners in the community rather than a division with the goal of shutting down any given establishment.
“Our goal is to educate,” Paul said. “We aren’t just regulators. We are constantly looking for new ways to reach out to the community, reach out to the vendors and restaurants to let them know, ‘These are rules, this is what you can and cannot do. Let us help you.’ We want to be a partner.”
“We are lucky to have an incredible food service industry here in Porter County, and once establishments know better, once they know what policies are in place and what safety regulations are in place, they’ll do better,” Paul said. “We do seminars and in-person training with our food scientist, where we actually go out and meet with establishments to educate them on what we do and actually spend time in our community’s restaurants. That’s not something you can find in a lot of county health departments; usually, they want to get the inspection done, give you the things that need to be fixed, and then they’re out of there. That’s really not what we’re about, so we are starting to do more in-house educating.”
Much like the food division, the environmental division is out in the community every day ensuring public health and environmental wellbeing in Porter County.
“We focus primarily on inspecting and permitting septic and wells,” said Environmental Health Specialist Mary Evett. “Our services include plan reviews of new construction, and we make recommendations to folks who may be having septic failures as far as replacing or fixing their system.”
Septic and Well Systems
On average, one-third of all septic systems fail each year, which has an incredible impact on ground and surface water, not to mention the impact septic system failures have on homeowners. The division works hard not only to prevent or maintain any septic failure but also to educate the county on the importance of caring for septic and well systems.
“We recommend hiring a professional to periodically remove scum and sludge,” Evett said. “For most single-family home septic systems, tanks should be cleaned every three to five years. This will prevent the system from failing and requiring it to be replaced completely.”
“If a repair is needed at a home, the homeowner will have to get a Residential Repair Permit,” Evett continued. “First, contact us and request an onsite visit from an environmental health inspector, who will visit and review the site. We may request a soil test, at which time a private, certified soil scientist must be hired.”
After this, a "Repair Permit Field Investigation Report" is issued, which includes any septic or well system specifications and other requirements. To obtain a residential repair permit, the customer is required to visit the environmental division in the Porter County Administration building.
Evett and her team work closely with engineers and construction companies on new and ongoing construction in the area. When a new brick-and-mortar building is going in, a soil test completed by a certified soil scientist is submitted, where a septic or well field investigation report will be issued. Much like the “Repair Permit Field Investigation Report,” this report outlines what changes and modifications must be made. Once that report is issued, the customer can apply for a well or septic permit.
Pools, Tattoos, and Beaches
While the division’s focus is primarily on wells and septic systems, its reach in the community stretches out to everything from semi-public and public pools to tattoo studios to even beach sampling in private communities.
“We do the beach sampling in the area for the chain of lakes here in the county and private communities,” Evett said. “These private communities in the area requested years ago that we test their lake water at the beaches. For pools, we regulate public pools, like community or YMCA pools, and semi-public pools, like apartment pools. There are about 70 facilities in the area that are inspected and permitted by us annually.”
“For tattoo parlors, we do compliance and sanitation inspections - something we have been doing since about 2009 when a county-wide ordinance was put into place,” Evett continued. “We also permit them, which is always done on an annual basis. During the height of COVID-19, we also made sure that parlors were following COVID-19 regulations like wearing face masks and sanitizing surfaces.”
The division also verifies that all pool operators and tattoo artists are properly trained.
Animal Bites, Mosquitos, and Bats
When it comes to animal bites, mosquitos, and bats, the division handles reports of animal bites, mosquito-borne illnesses like West Nile Virus, and possible rabies infections from bats and other wildlife. If someone comes in contact with a bat or other wildlife, and they believe they are at risk of rabies or infections, the division recommends getting medical help immediately and will work with the appropriate agencies to investigate.
The division also acts as the complaints department. Though the division does not act on complaints on such things as unmown lawns, accumulated junk, and more, when a public health issue arises that begins to affect to health of residents, Evett and her team will work with the appropriate agencies to handle the issue.
“Anything like hoarding situations, broken or discharging sewer lines, lack of heat, water, electricity, or sewer or septic to a residence, lack of trash pick-up service, and malfunctioning septic systems, we take those complaints seriously, as they can really impact community health,” Evett said. “For cases that involve minors and adults in unsafe living conditions, we work with Child and Adult Protective Services closely.”
Evett emphasized the role the environmental division plays in the community, echoing the same sentiment that Paul voiced.
“Our goal is to maintain public health and keep our community healthy,” Evett said. “We want to partner with the community, with our local agencies, and with our residents, and the best way for us to do that is to be educated on how to keep Porter County safe.”
For more information about the food and environmental divisions of the Porter County Health Department, visit https://www.porterco.org/297/Health.