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Vogel's 'Pie Bill' applauded by church groups

The Rev. Miroslaw Stelmaszczyk is quite sure there hasn't been a volunteer who poisoned herself taste-testing a baked good she donated for the Holy Family Church annual Lenten fish fry. That's why he feels safe selling those desserts at his East Deer parish.

So he applauds a state bill aiming to protect churches and fire halls from any state crackdown on home-baked goods they sell to raise money.

The so-called "Pie Bill" awaits Gov. Ed Rendell's signature. Authored by state Sen. Elder Vogel Jr. last year, it will keep state Agriculture Department inspectors from penalizing nonprofit groups that sell home-baked food at fundraisers.

Vogel took action after inspectors during Lent told St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Rochester, which is in his district, it Is against the law to sell pies, cookies and cakes baked at home.

It's Vogel's first bill.

"We did well with it," said Vogel, a first-term Republican representing portions of Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties.

The governor's office is reviewing the bill, Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma said.

"I can tell you the governor supports the bill in concept," he said.

When inspectors told St. Cecilia about a little-known law prohibiting the sale of home-baked products, many nonprofits that rely on homemade goods to raise money were caught by surprise, said the Rev. Michael Greb, pastor at St. Cecilia.

Greb said St. Cecilia's fish fry sales were off last year, and though the parish sold a few pies during Lent this year, it wasn't many.

"People were kind of concerned with breaking the law," he said.

In the Alle-Kiski Valley, fish fry and community event organizers didn't report lower sales but said news of the crackdown at St. Cecilia had them concerned about being the state's next target.

"Last year was the first time that I heard the subject come up," said Mary Calvanese, a volunteer who helps organize the fish fry at Mount St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in New Kensington. "I'm happy they resolved this."

Virginia Mrvan, another Mount St. Peter volunteer, said she has "complete confidence" the desserts her church sells meet restaurant standards, if not exceed them.

"I trust everything that comes into the bake sale," she said.

The Agriculture Department inspects churches with commercial kitchens each year. Those that hold no more than three events or celebrations in a calendar year can obtain temporary licenses, valid for 14 consecutive days.

"Food prepared in a private home can only be used if that facility is licensed/registered and inspected by the department," state regulations said.

The department adopted retail food rules in 2003 to keep pace with changing food science.

It maintains that one-third of food-borne illnesses come from private fundraisers.

"It's one of those things that probably should never have happened, but now that it did ... we're all pretty happy about it," Greb said.

Vogel said although food safety is important, he believes Pennsylvania could make better use of its resources than to pursue volunteers and groups working to improve communities.

Monsignor Michael Begolly, pastor at Mount St. Peter, agreed.

"It's sad we live in a society where you have to make a law that says it's OK to do this," he said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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