Ever since an NBC affiliate in Los Angeles produced a segment on the horrible conditions at LA’s 7th Street Market, we’ve carefully monitored the story and tried to learn more.
Rats In Los Angeles: The Produce Industry’s Shame highlighted the television report. Lessons From The LA Market and Pundit’s Mailbag — Beware TV Crews Coming To A Market Near You pointed out that the question of facility design and condition was unlikely to end with this local report in Los Angeles.
Most recently we ran Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry — Meruelo Maddox’s Michael Bustamante And Steven London, in which we interviewed two representatives of the market’s owner, one a food safety consultant hired just for the clean-up project. Both representatives explained what, in their views, went wrong and what is being done to fix the situation.
There is a tremendous temptation to dismiss a story like this if your company is not directly involved. That would be a mistake.
The focus now on Good Agricultural Practices for spinach, lettuce and leafy greens has been so intense that it may make some in the industry think that food safety is mostly something for farmers to worry about. In the end that is not likely to be the case.
Food safety awareness has been so elevated that every segment of the industry will, in turn, have its challenge. Think about all the packing “sheds” the industry operates and ask yourself if very many of them would meet British Retail Consortium standards right now. We can expect American retailers to start asking questions about these facilities very soon. The day of open facilities, exposed to insects, vermin and security breeches, is rapidly coming to an end.
At some point, wholesale markets will find themselves at an inflection point. They will either upgrade their facilities and standards of cleanliness to meet the food safety and food security standards that will be imposed by major buyers, or they will find themselves operating in an informal sector of the produce industry, relegated to a different clientele.
It will take time to rebuild facilities but right now every facility can focus on improving its cleanliness and security.
To use the horror story of the 7th Street Market as an instructional aid for the whole industry, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with the governmental official in LA responsible for public health:
Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health
Q: You seem to have gotten caught in the fire storm of the NBC investigation exposing health violations at 7th Street Market and its aftermath. How do you find yourself in this challenging role?
A: Indoctrination by fire is how some people view my role in this. I had been director of the bureau of special operations and planning for about two years. That department handles among other things, finance data, personnel, media public outreach, internal and external training. I was appointed director of the food inspection bureau, basically our retail and wholesale unit, on October 1, 2006. I was appointed interim director of environmental health in January, but began taking over the role in the beginning of November. It was very abrupt with absolutely no transition because of the former director’s early retirement due to illness. I went from the administrative investigative arm to overseeing the entire food program to responsibility for our entire environmental health program.
The exposé was shown in January. NBC’s visits to the site started in September. NBC asked for documents from us in November. When I looked at these records, I saw repeated requests from inspectors for trash service, we were citing these operators, but there was no recourse, no follow-up. I saw the enforcement was neither effective nor coordinated. The supervisor should have picked up on these violations. There should have been raised eyebrows.
On Nov. 29, we started a coordinated effort that resulted in the cleanup measures you saw in the news and what was produced in terms of documents. From the end of November to January 15, we performed numerous inspections that resulted in roughly 60 closures at one time or another. The market contains 69 wholesale produce businesses, but the violations occurred over a period of time, and some operators were repeat offenders. In a given day there could be 40 closures with others already in effect. We also submitted 26 criminal complaints. One of those complaints is actually against the market’s management itself.
Q: What were the specific reasons for the closures?
A: We did inspections and found restrooms not satisfactory. That complex has a single set of common public restroom facilities for men and women with the exception of one business that has its own facility for public use. The majority of closures were based on bathroom health issues, around 30 because of no hot water, about nine for rodents. Five were closed for a combination of no hot water and rodents, and about 17 were closed for no public health license, and two for another reason, probably for lack of trash disposal.
Q: If there was only one main common public bathroom area, why wouldn’t all operators be culpable?
A: If you consider a normal mall and there’s a food court, and if you can imagine there was a problem with water, it was a matter of manpower to get to all those businesses to issue citations.
The hot water problem was not a blanket black-and-white issue. Hot water was intermittent. There was an electrical heater but severe demand depleted the hot water. Electrical hot water heaters require a lot of maintenance. The capacity was just too small. Water was unavailable depending on a couple of factors.
This particular restroom was in an open corridor walk way that leads to the street, pedestrians would use it, and the market is in an area where transient population is very high. As a result there was a lot of vandalism. I reviewed orders to replace faucet handles because they were stolen. The bottom line is it made the restroom inoperable. Part of the solution now is adding more bathrooms.
Q: What about the rodent and trash problems?
A: Warehousing food and moving product in and out of businesses always poses challenges with food safety and vulnerability to vermin and rodents. The 7th Street Market operation was exacerbating the problem. If I could give you an image, picture a mid-evil castle, its square with 75 doors on the inside court yard; each is a business, and at the center is where the cars park. Two things went on; there were cars driving in head first to load material, and in between would be a trash can or dumpster, so both dumping and loading activities were going on at the same time.
The market was originally designed around one company unloading and loading material. But it doesn’t work when 75 businesses are there, needing a loading area for palletizing or staging out of doors in preparing for their customers to pick up material. Then making matters worse, the market was operating more like a retailer, with vendors putting out product displays for customers to view and waiting for them to purchase. A wholesaler is supposed to have most of the product in the warehouse and the customer comes in and sees small sample boxes, not bringing all product out for display. That’s what was going on, product was being stored in the parking area and operators were placing it next to trash.
The very first solution was to insure every operator had a dumpster. Once they got a permit they would cancel their trash service. Secondly, their customers that came to purchase, many smaller businesses, came with small vans or trucks not set for commercial use and they would re-box product to get the most use out of their vehicle. Doing this out in the open, as they’d go through the box, they’d throw the bruised damaged product on the ground. Now the problem is with customer behavior as well as an operator problem.
Q: So the problems were becoming aggravated by a myriad of factors?
A: Operators are storing product outside for display. Customers are sorting, repacking and throwing damaged product on the ground. People come and pilfer or go through that product both in trash cans and off the ground for resale or to take away for their own use. Maybe transients now further spread this discarded product out and we have a mess. Others looking for cardboard, in the process throw more product on the ground.
Q: Sounds like this dynamic created a breeding ground for rodents.
A: In terms of the vermin problem, I’d point to poor maintenance of the entire complex. The market management would use a skip loader, essentially a big shovel on a tractor, scoop up all material and put in a large roll-off dumpster, a receptacle about 20 feet long, sides eight feet high on metal wheels, and a truck would come and take it away. They have a number of positions around this market. They would scoop this trash up and wash down residue left. The problem is you leave this attraction for rodents. With attraction of rodent food, you have 69 open doors to live and breathe.
This is the overview of a far more complex problem.
Q: As the investigation unfolded, didn’t you find violations in other wholesale markets too?
A: Yes, we have 10 wholesale complexes. They contain anywhere from four facilities to as many as 69. Our 8th Street Market holds 37 sites. We also have 62 stand-alone complexes, mostly in the downtown area. The 7th Street Market was the extreme, but there are commonalities. We did find vermin. Out of 37 sites at the 8th Street Market, we’ve had 27 closures for rodents, some repeats. At the 7th Street Market, there was some repetitiveness in closures as well.
The standard closure is suspension of the license (for wholesaler) or permit (for retail), temporarily suspending until compliance is met. Revocation is where the operator is showing cause why it shouldn’t be permanently suspended. Those hearings are held when the operator has high risk or repetitive violations or overall incompliance. We had three licenses revoked.
Q: Short of closing operators down, what steps can be taken to shake up embedded practices?
A: We issued citations whether customer, vendor, transient man, women, or child dumped things on the ground for whatever reason to break the culture of the site. We started doing that in January. The normal pattern is not to cite the customers, but because they were intimately involved we needed to do so.
We also required any product outside the building be for staging only, palletized for someone to pick up. Under no circumstance could the product be stored in the parking lot specifically. The operator could not put pallets in parking stalls next to the trash. Also operators had to verify they had a trash service, meaning pickup and a dumpster marked with their name on it that we could visibly see.
Q: What is the status of those efforts now?
A: I’ve met with management to develop an action plan with remedies they need to do; some are in place, others are being worked on. We are seeking additional restrooms to the complex. They will add two complete sets, men and women, and janitorial facilities positioned in the complex away from the street and transient population. An electric hot water system is not suitable. Given no gas on the property, we were left looking for alternatives. A back up hot water unit with faster replenishment solves the capacity problem. Second, we insisted security at the site monitor the restroom in general for soap, hot water, towels, especially because of its access to the street.
As far as rodent control, what we are looking for now is a more centralized solution. Each business can have its own service, but it needs to be integrated with the problems of the exterior and the common area. In addition, a centralized trash program that will also address recycling. Lastly, and we’re making slower headway on this, segregating and defining staging areas. We’re looking for demarcation with physical barriers.
Q: What kind of authority does the Health Department have for requiring these specific strategies?
A: First and foremost, we hold permits on each individual operator. They all have to operate in compliance with the sanitation act, and also with the Los Angeles county code. The sanitation act is four or five pages written generally, whereas the county code takes these broad statements and makes them specific. For example, food should be protected from contamination or adulteration to food, must be stored at all times within the building for weather proofing and so it is not exposed to vermin.
Having said that, we’re about to introduce a set of statutes to govern the complex operator. We didn’t have specific language detailing responsibilities for landlords managing food facilities before.
The third part is best practices. In the times we live in now, having food security is very big on the wholesale level to prevent contamination or adulteration of the food supply. I can’t make landlords provide security; I can only encourage them by explaining it is in their best interest. We’re certainly going to hold them responsible for problems related to lack of security. Management could agree now to the recommendations and then not make them permanent, but in the end it would be penny wise and pound foolish and they would do so at their own peril.
Lastly I’ve met with the vendors several times to discuss the regulations, what the actions are for noncompliance, and the next stage of how they can be proactive, learn common violations, pitfalls, and what they need to do. We’re putting together a training booklet in Spanish.
Q: How do you enforce these changes and insure they will continue?
A: Reinforcement shouldn’t always be characterized as take them to court. It has to put them on the same page as the regulator with a measure of knowledge; a very aggressive inspection program coupled with aggressive educational outreach.
Q: Do you have a documented plan of how you will achieve this?
A: We’ve had a fairly successful retail program with grading A, B and C’s, but equally aggressive in providing a food inspection guide in five languages. We’ve also taught courses in seven languages. This is a fairly extensive outreach to this day. We maintain a presence with different restaurant associations. We keep a very open channel of communication so we can have a very informed industry here. The successes are not because of regulations but because the industry has been empowered to achieve. This is what we have to foster in the wholesale industry. We’re certainly going to do due diligence as a regulatory body, but changing the culture is the key.
Q: So to clarify, how are you adapting your retail program to the wholesale markets?
A: The things I’m employing from the retail side include the way we rotate staff so they don’t become stale and have alert eyes and to put an additional level of oversight in place.
Another element we are looking to adapt from retail is providing disclosure of the inspections to customers. In the retail program, this is accomplished by applying a grade and any consumer can look on the website and see a restaurant’s violations and why it received a certain grade. We are proposing a variation similar to this in wholesale markets, but it won’t be applying a grade. We don’t think the retail and foodservice world would appreciate that, but they would want to know what violations are present when we do the inspection.
If I’m a restaurant and send a buyer or jobber to one of these markets, they look for produce that’s fresh, but I hope to offer another tool, so that the retailer or foodservice operator knows what conditions we found the food to be held in. They’d want to know if there was a rodent or cockroach problem because that could have an immediate effect for their program. We want to put this on the website so they can make educated choices on who they want to do business with.
Beyond this, one of the merits of the retail program as a disclosure mechanism is that it makes the operators proactive in fixing facilities. They know customers will look at that report. Inherently it makes them move to prevent vermin and not be apathetic to those conditions.
Q: Are you making any significant structural or employee organizational changes in the department itself to gain better control of the situation?
A: Our wholesale division is called the food and milk program, and it inspected everything but the wholesale markets. Historically, the wholesale market inventory of roughly 277 facilities was positioned in the retail program. We changed that.
Q: Why? What is the significance of integrating the program into the wholesale division?
A: The food and milk program has several responsibilities; to inspect all wholesale food processors, manufacturers, industrial caterers, in essence from movie set operators to producers of bread to processors of foods that go in cans. It did not include anything coming in its natural state in terms of produce, which would be the wholesale produce markets or wholesale warehouses where product was entirely prepackaged with no food processing involved.
The food and milk program inspection staff is senior inspectors accustomed to enforcing the related laws and regulations.
In California, there are two bodies of law, the sanitation act and another body called the uniform retail food facilities law, both sections within the California Health and Safety Code. The reason I point out this distinction is that the retail staff is accustomed to the latter. The sanitation act is very meager in contrast to the retail law and largely looks to best practices and so forth.
If you look at the wholesale level, all the equipment must be to a particular commercial standard, whereas on the industrial retail level, equipment is fabricated and custom made. Another example is related to a lot of the cleaning equipment. Floors need to be sloped with high pressure hoses. It’s a different set of laws and the group is familiarized with them.
Q: And in terms of employees?
A: Secondly, we implemented inspector oversights that weren’t present before. The inspector on the ground would bring paperwork back for the senior inspector to review. Now the senior inspector must go to the site and see it personally. They must go once a month to the market and look at the complex as a whole, not just the individual businesses. The senior inspectors are looking at the forest, inspectors know every tree.
Lastly, we now rotate inspectors. We had the same inspector principally inspecting those markets for years. We should have reassigned him because he got burned out and overwhelmed, and was not doing the appropriate enforcement.
Q: Do you have enough financial wherewithal and inspectors needed for your vision?
A: I don’t think we have the ability to maintain daily ongoing presence of inspectors. I’m looking for creating a presence that is felt, and that what we write has meaning so that operators take action to make corrections. That’s a cultural change for those kinds of markets. I think disclosure will facilitate changed behavior.
Q: Skeptics question how long it will be before the markets are back to their old ways. What do you say to them?
A: I feel confident this is not going to be a repetitive problem. Really going forward we are making significant changes. In addition, as vendors go out of business and new businesses come in, we’re requiring submission of plans so they can update old equipment and come into compliance with current standards. This is a very reasonable approach rather than burden existing business where a simple repair would remedy a problem. Obviously, if it is a serious problem, we will need to fix it.
Q: In the end, isn’t long-lasting change predicated on all the players changing their behaviors and transforming the cultural environment that has remained in place for many years?
A: I’ve identified this with 7th Street Market, but it will be our approach with the other markets we’ve visited. After our entire evaluation, 277 facilities and 10 complexes, we intend to bring all stakeholders to a meeting to address common concerns and give educational information on how to operate in compliance. It’s just as important to empower the people you inspect than to regulate. They become stakeholders in food safety and understand why it is so important for their livelihood and success of their business. How many customers will come if the market is under scrutiny with the media and the public eye as unsanitary? They have a vested interest in making these changes and understanding these risks.
The NBC report did show some conditions as worse than they really were. For example the food they were showing that had been eaten by rodents was the old, discarded, damaged produce that would not have been available for public consumption. The water spewing down was from the roof in the car lot, while the liquid tested was in a ground trench. Given produce is unwashed, coupled with the substantial population of pigeons, as well as cats and rodents, you would expect to see bacteria in water tests. Still, the report shocks the visual senses.
It speaks to the culture of business at that complex. Behavior was degraded to the point that it was OK to throw garbage on the ground, step between cars and urinate, there’s a rodent problem here and it’s a given, restrooms have no hot water and no one complains about it. In many businesses that would be unacceptable and there would never be a comfort level where that’s OK.
The important point here is that poor conditions existed and that we failed to do our part of the job to eradicate the problems or eliminate the businesses causing them. We didn’t do a good job. Hopefully the actions put in place, and the monitoring, not only of individual vendors, but of the overall complex will be what’s needed. To be honest, we are simply adapting what we have on paper for the retail program. You can look at the retail program’s policies regarding closures and inspections, as well as a retail guide on line in English that’s available in five languages. You can see the most common violations found and get explanations and practical examples of what constitutes that violation and a copy of state law that makes it a violation. Then you can see how we valued the violation in terms of high/low risk, and policies for why a closure took place and for what reasons. We’re very transparent in that regard.
For all too long the wholesale industry has really dismissed the importance of food safety issues with produce. Our recent outbreaks in the last year have brought home problems of mishandling produce to the general public and even to industry stake holders who realized this as a big threat. Overall there is a heightened awareness of food safety issues. Not long ago, a retail employee would come out with a knife and cut open a cantaloupe put saran wrap on and stick it on the shelf. Now this is viewed as s food safety risk.
A single packing house can affect the entire industry. The exposé in the LA Market and other findings of produce outbreaks, speak to the need for farm-to-table inspection based on risk exposures. From cattle grazing and water run-off to processing and retail handling. And the public needs to be involved. They can’t rely on the fact it’s pretty and polished and accept responsibility for washing it.
In creating change, you can regulate till the cows come home, but the point is that communication and understanding is the only way to be effective and gain compliant partners. The more informed operators can carry their knowledge forward to those distributors who purchase from farmers directly, asking those same questions, minimizing the potential cross contamination. Are you providing pickers with restrooms in the field? Food safety education can travel through the supply chain. It is important for the industry to step up as a whole and not wait for regulators to elevate food safety. Be proactive rather than wait for a catastrophe and create more protections for the industry at the same time.
Many thanks to Terrance Powell for speaking with us in such a delicate situation. The interview is filled with interesting thoughts that can point the way to progress for the produce industry. It is also filled with warnings for what lies ahead.
Basic points such as… “The very first solution was to insure every operator had a dumpster. Once they got a permit they would cancel their trash service…” are pointing to procedural changes that are required. Where are the “critical control points” in this type of situation? Is it firms that don’t have trash service, don’t have an exterminator, etc.? And how do we structure leases and regulations to make sure these things actually happen?
Terrance also points to the necessity of dealing with the reality of the situation. When he points out that…“…their customers that came to purchase, many smaller businesses, came with small vans or trucks not set for commercial use and they would re-box product to get the most use out of their vehicle. Doing this out in the open, as they’d go through the box, they’d throw the bruised damaged product on the ground. Now the problem is with customer behavior as well as an operator problem…”he is speaking to the need to have facilities designed and behavior regulated in line with the actual, not hypothetical, use of a facility. A facility that is a pick-up depot for hundreds of small merchants that need to squeeze product into station wagons needs different facilities and rules than a facility where large buyers send tractor trailers in to load up.
Particularly impressive is Terrance’s focus on culture. He explains enforcement patterns with a cultural aim:
“We issued citations whether customer, vendor, transient man, women, or child dumped things on the ground for whatever reason to break the culture of the site. We started doing that in January. The normal pattern is not to cite the customers, but because they were intimately involved we needed to do so.”
And he gets to the crux of the problem:
“It speaks to the culture of business at that complex. Behavior was degraded to the point that it was OK to throw garbage on the ground, step between cars and urinate, there’s a rodent problem here and it’s a given, restrooms have no hot water and no one complains about it. In many businesses that would be unacceptable and there would never be a comfort level where that’s OK.”
One change ahead in Los Angeles will surely be copied throughout the country:
“Another element we are looking to adapt from retail is providing disclosure of the inspections to customers. In the retail program this is accomplished by applying a grade and any consumer can look on the website and see a restaurant’s violations and why it received a certain grade. We are proposing a variation similar to this in wholesale markets, but it won’t be applying a grade. We don’t think the retail and foodservice world would appreciate that, but they would want to know what violations are present when we do the inspection.
If I’m a restaurant and send a buyer or jobber to one of these markets, they look for produce that’s fresh, but I hope to offer another tool, so that the retailer or foodservice operator knows what conditions we found the food to be held in. They’d want to know if there was a rodent or cockroach problem because that could have an immediate effect for their program. We want to put this on the website so they can make educated choices on who they want to do business with.”
In other words, Los Angeles is going to be a leader — not only inspecting local wholesalers but posting inspection results on the web. As night follows day, we can expect buyers to put limitations on their suppliers, preventing purchases from facilities with violations. And we can expect other cities to duplicate the innovation as it becomes recognized as municipal best practices.
LA wholesalers, including the more modern markets, are first in line:
“After our entire evaluation, 277 facilities and 10 complexes, we intend to bring all stakeholders to a meeting to address common concerns and give educational information on how to operate in compliance. It’s just as important to empower the people you inspect than to regulate. They become stakeholders in food safety and understand why it is so important for their livelihood and success of their business. How many customers will come if the market is under scrutiny with the media and the public eye as unsanitary? They have a vested interest in making these changes and understanding these risks.”
And there is a word of caution for those who suppose food safety is as simple as passing a law:
“In creating change, you can regulate till the cows come home, but the point is that communication and understanding is the only way to be effective and gain compliant partners.”
A lot of interesting things going on in Los Angeles with a lot of lessons for us all around the industry. Perhaps the most important lesson is simple: Food safety and food security really are everyone’s problem, and the institutions of our industry now have to start moving to help all facets of the industry adjust to this reality.
Many thanks to Terrance Powell and the Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health for sharing their insights into this matter.