March 2007 - NBC4's Joel Grover broke the story of problems at the market.
JOEL GROVER: It was five weeks ago that we exposed conditions at the 7th Street Market, where food bound for thousands of restaurants was getting contaminated. After our report, the health department asked the city attorney to take action against the market's owner.
On Monday, the city attorney filed criminal charges. The owner happens to be one of the biggest landowners in downtown Los Angeles and a big-time contributor to the mayor's last campaign.
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It was behind the walls of the 7th Street Produce Market that we found one health code violation after another. Bathrooms for produce workers had no hot water, soap, or towels. Rats had free run of the place, eating away at produce bound for restaurant chains like Johnny Rockets and IHOP, which have since stopped buying from the 7th Street Market.
City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo is now partly blaming the market's owner for conditions that put public health at risk.
"We determined that there were serious health violations at the produce market. These two gentleman named in the complaint are the responsible parties," said Jeff Isaacs with the LA City Attorney's Office.
The market's owner is one of LA's biggest real estate tycoons, Richard Meruelo. He owns 50 downtown properties, and according to published reports, gave $193,000 to Mayor Villaraigosa's last campaign.
He's been criminally charged for violating the health code, like allowing a rat infestation and failing to keep the market clean. He's also been charged with numerous building and safety violations, which according to building department records, show he'd been ordered to fix years ago.
In NBC4's investigation, county health inspectors admitted the market had been in violation of the law for years and gotten away with it.
"We've been kind of lenient, awfully lenient with you guys," was caught saying on NBC4's hidden camera.
Since NBC4's report five weeks ago, the Health Department has ordered a massive cleanup of the market, and says the owner is working with inspectors. But the City Attorney is hoping these criminal charges will prompt the owner to clean up the market for good.
"Hopefully they are on their way to making changes that will eliminate the problems," Isaacs tells NBC4.
NBC4 received the following statement from a Spokesman for Richard Meruelo:
"We are surprised and disappointed that the City Attorney's office would decide to file a complaint against the owners of the 7th Street Produce Market despite the aggressive actions taken to significantly improve the problems identified in an NBC undercover investigation."
If convicted of Monday's charges, both the owner and manager of the market could face up to four years in jail, and $8000 in fines.
STATEMENT OF MERUELOMADDUX PROPERTIES INC. SPOKESPERSON MICHAEL BUSTAMANTE FOLLOWING THE FILING OF A COMPLAINT BY L.A. CITY ATTORNEY’S OFFICE AGAINST 7TH STREET PRODUCE MARKET
"We are surprised and disappointed that the City Attorney's office would decide to file a complaint against the owners of the 7th Street Produce Market despite the aggressive actions taken to significantly improve the problems identified in an NBC undercover investigation," said Michael Bustamante
"In fact the NBC reporter who did the investigation declared three weeks after the original piece aired that the market 'hasn't looked this clean in years.'"
“We will continue to be aggressive and vigilant to ensure that the Market's tenants adhere to the new protocols that have been put in place and continue our work with the County's Health Department to ensure a safe supply of food."