Oklahoma City-County Health Department cracking down on unlicensed food vendors

Monday, February 23rd 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Unlicensed food vendors, who may prepare food in their homes and sell it on the streets, are the subject of crackdown by the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.

Officials say people who sell food without a license may not be using unsafe food handling practices and could be putting consumers in danger.

``We've fired the opening salvo toward an underground economy,'' agency spokesman H.R. Holman said.

Health officials believe the problem has escalated locally, with scores of unlicensed food vendors operating from pushcarts, car trunks, ice chests in the backs of pickups and even in garages.

At least 40 unlicensed pushcarts are operating in Oklahoma County, authorities said.

On Feb.13, health inspectors, acting on a tip, found a restaurant operating out of a Bethany garage, with waitresses serving customers at tables.

Inspectors found beef stored at temperatures not cold enough under the Oklahoma State Food Code.

Multiple health-code violations were cited, the meat was discarded and the operation was closed.

``Illegal food vending is a problem, and improper handling of food can lead to serious illnesses,'' said Marla Sweaney, environmental specialist for the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.

Unlicensed vendors and peddlers often stake out job sites, civic events and church functions. Some may go door-to-door selling food prepared in homes or unlicensed kitchens, authorities said.

Popular items include smoked chicken, beef jerky, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, tacos, tamales, barbecued ribs, pies and cheesecake.

``Those individuals most often don't have the necessary knowledge of food sanitation and handling. The consumer is unaware of where this food came from or where it was prepared,'' Sweaney said.

``One thing I've seen during inspections of illegal food operations is young children, often diapered children in the food preparation and food storage areas. Since many of these foodborne diseases are spread through the fecal-oral route or are found in sewage ... this is a serious matter.''

Since Jan. 1, health officials have issued 16 citations to illegal vendors, more than it did during the same time period last year.

``We have no documented cases of people actually getting sick from contaminated food from unlicensed establishments,'' Sweaney said. ``However, people who get sick may not report that to us.

``Unless a group eats from the same unsafe, unlicensed vendor and discusses the fact they all have similar disease symptoms, we would not receive a report.''

Oklahoma City is the only metropolitan in the state area struggling to decrease the number of unlicensed food vendors. State officials say cities such as Tulsa, haven't had the same kind of reports.

``We as regulators recognize that unlicensed food vendors don't set a goal of causing foodborne illnesses,'' said Rocky McElvany, state head of consumer health services.

``But their lack of knowledge about utilizing a safe preparation area, safe food sources, proper thawing methods or acceptable cooking and holding temperatures are all critical factors,'' McElvany said.