This report aired Dateline Sunday, March 25
When you’re eating out at your favorite restaurant, do you ever wonder where your food has been?
What if it’s from a place crawling with rats? Where food is getting contaminated even by the people who work there?
Step inside the 7th Street wholesale produce market, in downtown Los Angeles, one of the biggest in the country. This is where thousands of restaurants and stores in Southern California, and some in nearby states, buy their fruits and vegetables.
Caroline Smith De Waal, consumer advocate for Science in the public interest: I think produce markets are one of the hidden hazards.
Caroline Smith De Waal, a consumer advocate from the center for science in the public interest, says wholesale produce markets might be a weak link in the food chain.
Smith De Waal: Consumers aren’t really aware of all the people who might be touching produce on its way to their table.
Starting last fall, we went undercover with hidden cameras, at the 7th Street Market, where week after week, we found filthy conditions—like workers dumping trash wherever they pleased or picking up cucumbers off the sludgy ground, and selling them like they’re clean.
We found produce stored right next to the porta-potties and next to garbage dumpsters which are crawling with rats—rats that feast on the markets fruits and vegetables.
NBC (on hidden camera): Are there rats?
Worker: Oh big ones. Boy, they love it in here.
Jeff Nelken, a forensic food safety expert, found these conditions inexcusable.
Jeffrey Nelken, food safety expert: Rats carry disease. As they walk on top of the food or they take a bite out of it, they are leaving their bacteria and virus behind.
And at the bathrooms for the market’s workers, we found no hot water and no soap.
Every day, we saw workers like one woman, using the toilets, and then touching food, without washing their hands with soap and hot water.
And this is an image we saw multiple times—produce vendors urinating right out in the open, around boxes of vegetables.
Joel Grover, KNBC reporter: Why did you do that?
Vendor: Uhhh, I have no idea.
Vendor: I’m very stupid. I’m very stupid.
Grover: You shouldn’t have done that?
But this was perhaps the biggest health hazard we saw, water spilling out of pipes that smelled like raw sewage. The water was splashing right onto boxes of produce.
De Waal: The conditions in that market really look like turn of the century.
We took water samples from the market and had them analyzed at a lab. What did they find in that water touching fruits and vegetables? Extremely high levels of E. coli, fecal coliform, and listeria, which can all cause food poisoning—and can’t always be washed off.
So where does this possibly contaminated produce end up?
In Los Angeles, we tracked it to local outlets of national chains like Johnny Rockets and IHop, as well as to smaller restaurants and markets. These restaurants now tell us they’ve stopped buying produce at the 7th Street Market because of the conditions we found.
The conditions were so dirty, they surprise even some of the workers.
Worker (on hidden camera): I’m surprised the health department hasn’t said something about this market the way it is.
In fact, the L.A. County Health Department has been well aware of the problems at the 7th Street Market. We found stacks of health code violations in their own files, going back for years.
But as this inspector admitted on hidden camera, they’ve never done much to force the market to correct those violations.
Inspector (on hidden camera): We’ve been kind of lenient, awfully lenient with you guys. We’ve been kind of lenient, awfully lenient with you guys.
We wondered why so we asked Terrence Powell, chief of L.A. County Department of Environmental Health.
Terrence Powell, chief of L.A. County Department of Environmental Health: Our actions have been very aggressive in area of sanitation.
Aggressive, it seems, only after NBC started asking questions.
Right after we requested an interview, our hidden cameras caught the chief health inspector, warning vendors at the market that NBC was investigating, and they better clean up.
Inspector (hidden camera): NBC might be out here in another week or so.
Undercover producer: The fact that NBC is coming kind of gave us a heads up, huh?
Grover: Seems like your people have not been doing their job in keeping that place clean.
Powell: I think it would appear so.
Grover: Would you want to eat the food from this place?
Powell: I would have a definite concern about the food emanating from this facility
Because of our investigation, the LA County Board of supervisors ordered health officials to clean up the 7th Street Market.
Today, it’s beginning to look like a different place and the bathrooms are now up to code.
But food safety experts say what we found here should be a wakeup call to produce markets across the country.
Smith De Waal: Wholesale produce markets need to be inspected regularly... this is vital to ensure that conditions like this don’t exist in other cities.
The owner and manager of the 7th Street Market are now facing criminal charges for multiple health and safety code violations. A spokesperson for the market tells us they're surprised by the charges because they've cleaned things up.