The county Board of Supervisors last week received a presentation from environmental health services manager Vivian Nelson, who plans to work with city, county and school district officials to inform the public about illegal vendors.
“We want to send an advisory to the public to make sure when they’re choosing foods that they choose from vendors that are legal,” she said. “Each legal vendor will have a health permit and a brightly-colored sticker on the rear panel of their truck or the side of their cart.”
Roadside produce vendors, often selling strawberries or oranges while standing or sitting on the ground, are a common site around San Benito County. Nelson said there is no provision in California’s health and safety code that allows them to sell food in that manner.
“They have no restrooms, no hand-washing stations, no way of sanitizing,” she said. “A lot of the food they sell is stored on the ground in the dirt and they have no food safety knowledge.”
What’s more, the source of the produce is not publicized, which is a concern for local health officials – particularly if the food being sold ends up being tainted.
“A lot of these people come from outside of our county,” Nelson said. “They are just dropped off by someone and then the money they make is taken out of our community. They’re taking tax dollars and consumer dollars away.”
Penalties for selling food or other items without a permit range from a $100-per-day violation to jail time, as well as monetary penalties of up to three times the health permit fee. For example, a county health permit for a food vehicle is $198 and a permit for a mobile food prep unit – such as a catering truck – costs $302.
During the recent yearly permitting cycle, Nelson said no vendors were issued penalties, but citizen and business complaints about an abundance of non-permitted street vendors has brought the issue to the forefront with county officials.
Monetary penalties, Nelson said, “are one of the options available to environmental health, though we prefer the educational approach. Those who do not respond to that will go through a due process and all options will be available to us.”
County health officials say they will work with vendors who are interested in becoming compliant, since “we’d like for them to come out to see us before we go out to see them,” Nelson said.
“We want to protect our business people who are doing things right,” she noted. “It’s not fair to have others stand on the corner who don’t have the pressures of regulation to undercut our businesses and take our money from our community.”
Nelson encouraged people who are aware of illegal street vendors to call the county’s environmental health office at 636-4305.
“We’ll be happy to respond to that, as we’ll take the educational approach first then progressively enhanced enforcement later,” she said.
Neighboring counties “are in the same situation” dealing with illegal vendors, according to Nelson.
“Those people who do not wish to be compliant seek places where things are not being enforced, so if we’re not as proactive as our neighbors, the situation will get worse here.”
The county is planning to issue a bilingual press release/flyer in the coming weeks to help inform the public, as well as vendors, about the reasons for complying with health and safety guidelines.
Other steps discussed include working with local businesses “to assist in addressing this problem,” Nelson told supervisors, and perhaps conducting a law and code enforcement sweep of illegal vendors on a weekend, when they are easier to find selling their goods.