How safe is the food in your favorite restaurant? Joel Grover and his team went undercover for four months, and they've exposed some dangerous problems with some of the food that's ending up in popular restaurants all across Southern California.
February 2007 - A well-known LA restaurant has an "A" in the window, suggesting the food is clean. But NBC4's hidden cameras captured images of where the restaurant chain gets some of their produce. A place crawling with rats, where food is getting contaminated, sometimes by the people who work there.
"I saw you going to the bathroom right around boxes of food," NBC4's Joel Grover said to a produce vendor.
It's called the Seventh Street Produce Market, in Downtown LA. This is where thousands of Southern California restaurants and stores get their fruits and vegetables.
Week after week, NBC4's cameras document filthy conditions like workers dumping trash wherever they please and workers picking up produce off the sludgy ground, and selling it like it's clean.
NBC4 found produce stored right next to "Port-A-Potties," and produce stored right next to the garbage dumpsters, which are crawling with rats. Rats that feast on the market's 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.
"Rats carry disease," said Jeff Nelken, a forensic food safety expert. "As they walk on top of the food or they take a bite out of it, they are leaving their bacteria and virus behind," Nelken tells NBC4.
NBC4 found other serious health code violations, like in the bathrooms for the market's workers where there was no hot water and no way to turn the hot water on. The janitor says there's never any soap.
Every day NBC4 sees workers using the toilets, and then touching food without washing their hands with soap and hot water.
"It's a direct transfer of their feces, urine, bacteria and virus onto that food," Nelken tells NBC4.
NBC4 also saw workers urinating, right out in the open around boxes of vegetables.
But perhaps the biggest health hazard NBC4 saw was water spilling out of pipes. The water smelled like raw sewage and was splashing onto boxes of produce that were often sitting in that water.
NBC4 took bacteria samples from the market and had them analyzed at a lab, which confirmed high levels of E. coli, Fecal Coli forms, and Listeria, which can all cause food poisoning.
"The potential for an outbreak from exposure to this kind of inexcusable conditions is of great concern," says Cliff Coles with California Microbiological Consulting.
So where does this possibly contaminated produce end up? NBC4 tracked it to well-known chains like Johnny Rockets and IHOP. It goes to trendy restaurants, like Sushi of Naples in Pasadena and Long Beach, and to many smaller eateries like Pita Pita also in Pasadena.
Produce from a market with dirty conditions that surprise even some of the workers.
"I'm surprised the Health Department hasn't said something about this market, the way it is," a worker told an NBC4 employee.
NBC4 wondered that too, since the Health Department has had files of records detailing a history of problems at this produce market.
NBC4 asked Terrance Powell, Chief of the Department of Environmental Health.
"You'll see our actions have been very aggressive in the area of sanitation," Powell told NBC4's Joel Grover.
Aggressive, it seems, only after NBC4 started asking questions. Right after NBC4 requested an interview, NBC4's hidden cameras caught the chief health inspector for the district telling vendors at the market that NBC was investigating, and they better clean up.
"NBC might be out here, in another week or so," the health inspector said.
"Really? You mean the television station?" another person replied.
"Yeah," the inspector replied.
"Isn't that kind of embarrassing to the Health Department?" Grover asked Powell.
"I think it's clearly embarrassing, in terms of the rhetoric," Powell replied.
"It sounds like you're cleaning this place up because NBC is investigating," Grover asked Powell.
"I don't think we have the ability nor do we have the desire to clean it up for the media," Powell replied.
But that's not what the chief inspector admitted on hidden camera.
"We're diligently enforcing, what we we've supposed to been doing all along," the chief inspector said.
"The fact that NBC is coming kind of gave us a heads up, huh?" another person asked.
"Yeah," the inspector replied.
"Seems like your people have not been doing their job in keeping that place clean," Grover asked Powell.
"I think it would appear so," Powell replied.
What about produce near the rat infested trash and the contaminated water?
"That food could be contaminated?" Grover asked Powell.
"Yes, I think clearly so," Powell replied.
"Would you want to eat food from this place?" Grover asked Powell.
"I would have a definite concern about food emanating from this facility," Powell replied.
Now the Health Department is promising a sweeping crackdown on the Seventh Street Market.
Are you going to take more aggressive action from now on?" Grover asked.
"I think what we need to do is do our job," Powell replied.
"Better than you've been doing it?" Grover asked.
"Clearly we need to improve," Powell replied.
Some of the restaurants in NBC4's story also plan to make some changes. In a statement, Johnny Rockets said, "We have taken appropriate actions to ensure that this produce supplier will not be delivering Seventh Street Produce Market products to any Johnny Rockets restaurants."
Pita Pita also says it will stop using produce from the Seventh Street Market until the Health Department cleans it up.
IHOP and Sushi of Naples tells NBC4 they thoroughly wash all produce from any source before using.