Food Quality caught Meriwether by cell phone at a Starbucks in Atlanta, where he was scheduled to talk about food safety and security to health care and hospital workers. He stepped outside to speak with Food Quality for fear that the conversation might cause concern or fear among café patrons.
It happened once before, he said, in a restaurant. Wait staff overheard a conversation Meriwether was having about food safety and security with clients and colleagues. The restaurant staff apparently misinterpreted what was going on and called police, who questioned the group’s activities only to learn that there was no cause for alarm.
“You have to define security,” he says. “It can involve anything. It can involve a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. It can involve a shortage of workers or a shortage of food. It could also be a misunderstanding.”
The most effective way to combat any type of food insecurity, Meriwether says, is to build partnerships, not with just federal agencies, but also with local enforcement, hospitals and other community organizations.
“The biggest thing we try to do is help build partnerships. That’s what really saves lives, businesses and communities,” he says. “That means seeing if the local Burger King could help supply food in the event of natural disaster or food crisis. It’s not just the number of people who get sick. It’s the loss of jobs and the impact on the economy.”
Meriwether points out that FDA only inspects three percent of the food that comes into the United States, as federal agencies tend to rely on the local health departments for the bulk of the enforcement.
That has proven tough for the some 500 health inspectors in California’s Los Angeles County, which has more than 52,000 food establishments.
And the enforcement of health codes – or lack thereof – in Southern California has lured the cameras of the mainstream media, exposing the food securities face of indifference and revealing that with unhygienic and careless food service employees working with goods to feed the masses, who needs terrorists?
The coverage from NBC4 TV in Los Angeles was the result of a four-month undercover investigation by Joel Grover and Matt Goldberg at the Seventh Street Produce Market in Downtown L.A. —where thousands of Southern California restaurants and stores get their fruits and vegetables.
Perhaps the most shocking piece of footage was of a vendor urinating near boxed produce. “I saw you going to the bathroom right around boxes of food,” Grover said to the man.
The filthy footage, however, didn’t stop there. Workers dumped trash wherever they pleased. There were even shots of workers picking up produce off the sludgy ground, and selling it as if it were clean.
Produce was stored right next to portable toilets and garbage dumpsters. Rats were also commonplace, feasting on fruits and vegetables, according to the workers.
“Are there rats?” an NBC4 employee asked a worker at the market.
“Oh, big ones. Boy, they love it in here,” the worker replied.
Nelken, a food safety consultant who operates www.foodsafetycoach.com, was the expert NBC4 turned to for insight. He tells Food Quality that worker indifference, lack of pest management or HACCP programs and lack of enforcement are huge food security breaches that invite a host of troubles.
“This is a produce market that people thought was just supplying restaurants, but they were selling to everybody and it fell through the health department cracks,” he says. “You cannot always rely on the health department. This is good example.”
Nelken says the undercover investigation also found other serious health code violations, like in the bathrooms for market workers. There was no hot water and no way to turn it on. The janitor told reporters there’s never any soap. In fact, every day, NBC4 recorded workers using the toilets and then touching food without washing their hands with soap and hot water.