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Lessons From The LA Market

Everyone in the produce industry has had a nice opportunity to “tsk, tsk” at the 7th Street Produce Market in Los Angeles. You just had to look at the videos included in our article, Rats in Los Angeles: The Produce Industry’s Shame, and it is obvious they have a horrible facility to begin with; it was kept in terrible disrepair by its owners and the tenants allowed it to be unsanitary.

Certainly the facility is an obvious place to start. We received a note from a progressive Los Angeles area importer and distributor regarding our piece on the 7th Street Market:

“Everything is cleaned-up” is not true. Demolition would be the only real way. This market was built in the first decade of the 20th century for horse drawn cart delivery and pick-up at a street level. This is hardly a facility that should be handling exposed fresh product.

— Bill Vogel
Tavilla Sales
Los Angeles, California

Bill is correct, and what he is saying is not new. Just shy of ten years ago in PRODUCE BUSINESS, the Pundit’s sister publication, we ended a column by writing the following:

“Progressive industry leaders, though, see that the era of “buy from anyone” is drawing to close. Want to see a glimpse of the future? Go to Pittsburgh. There rises a new wholesale produce facility being built by Consumers Produce. We may not think of wholesaling as being in the vanguard of new technology but, in fact, this new plant is motivated by all the usual considerations — need for more space, consolidate operations, more efficient plant — plus one more.

As Alan Siger, president of Consumers Produce, put it: “The day is coming when large retailers, foodservice operators and service wholesalers simply won’t buy from anyone without a facility that can guarantee proper handling of the product, including uninterrupted maintenance of the cold chain.” If buyers seize their responsibility, Al Siger will be right. And the industry will be better for it. Forewarned is forearmed.”

You can read the whole piece here.

When the Hunts Point market opened in 1967, my family was an original tenant, having moved there from the old Washington Street market in Manhattan. The joke on the day it opened was that it was the newest antiquated market in the world. It had taken so long to wind through the city bureaucracy that by the time it opened, it was already obvious that it needed more room between buildings for larger trucks, that the focus on rail was going to be a problem, and, in general, that it wasn’t the market that would have been designed in 1967.

Even the more modern wholesale markets, even some still on the design boards, are not really suitable to meet current standards for food safety and food security.

The basic plan of most American produce markets — with warehouse and dock downstairs, selling area in front of the warehouse and office upstairs — is not conducive to meeting modern standards. Too many people interact with the produce.

The Boston Terminal Market, as well as many markets around the world, more closely follow the design pattern that is required.

Basically you need to separate the sales function from the storage function. You can have a central hall where produce is sold and displayed. Buyers and sellers meet here, orders are taken here, but product pick-up is from separate buildings.

In other words, there is one building for people, and they can do whatever non-hygenic things they do. There is another building in which produce comes in, is racked and then is delivered out to the truck of the buyer.

The key thing is that the produce storage building is secured. Nobody goes in without good reason and then they must be escorted.

The benefits are obvious:

  1. Quality is better because temperature control is better when a building is secured with proper buffer zones for entry and minimal opening of doors.
  2. Food safety is better because the produce is not exposed — to the elements or to people. Someone may still, as in the video, urinate in the market — but it won’t affect any produce.
  3. Shrink is less both because the cold chain is maintained better and because theft is much more difficult.
  4. Food security is much better because the contact between the produce and people is minimized and supervised.

These kind of facilities run into resistance because people are not accustomed to them. But it is the way things must be done. And, today, we have tools that could make gaining acceptance easier. For example, how about digital video cameras that can drop down from the ceiling, that show in real-time pictures of the produce on large flat screen monitors on the sales floor — so suspicious buyers can double check that the product in the warehouse is the same as what is on the sales floor?

The fact that the 7th Street Market is so old and was so neglected may make it easy for others to disassociate themselves from anything like that.

That is a shame because if people are honest, they will know that, whatever segment of the business they work in, there are issues of cleanliness and hygiene. Start right at the retailer and restaurant. How many of you have seen employees finish using the rest room, check themselves out in the mirror, slick back their hair — then walk out of the door without washing their hands?

Which, by the way, is another structural problem. The proper place for wash basins is outside of the rest room — both so that people don’t touch contaminated doors with clean hands and, so that restaurant and retail managers can post cameras to confirm that employees have followed proper hand washing procedures.

Many food safety issues are dealt with not by demanding that everyone do things that they should, but by changing the structure so that what is supposed to happen is more likely to happen and easier to confirm.

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