A chain of grocery stores that primarily caters to Latino consumers was charged Tuesday with routinely selling out of code merchandise and other practices that consumer advocacy groups say could be endangering the health of its customers.
El Super says the claims are untrue and are a hard-ball tactic to influence ongoing labor negotiations.
With a display of out of date dairy and deli products as their backdrop, speakers standing on a street corner outside the El Super grocery store in Highland Park told reporters that inspectors from the Los Angeles County Health Department in January identified two “Critical Risk Factor” violations at the El Super store in Santa Fe Springs “that pose a threat to the public health that required immediate correction.”
The violations allegedly included a “dirty interior” and “multiple servings of potentially hazardous foods,” which had not been kept at the proper temperature. El Super, as usually is the case in these situations, was ordered to dispose of the product.
El Super operates 30 stores in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The stores are mostly located in predominately low-income Latino communities.
Organizers of Tuesday’s press conference said their “field researchers” followed up on the health department’s report and surveyed the grocery chain’s other locations for possible violations. They say surveyors found “one or more fresh prepackaged meat, dairy product and/or service deli item(s) that was/were past the printed sell, use or best by date” in 29 of the 30 stores they investigated. They claim that violations found by the county health department are likely “widespread,” and they were expected to send a letter to the county’s director of environmental health urging the agency “to launch an immediate investigation into El Super.”
The letter was to be signed by representatives of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, Consumer Federation of California, Pueblo & Salud and Strategic concepts in Organizing and Policy Education.
“As consumers, we have the right to give our opinion and the obligation to know what we are consuming in our supermarkets, mainly because the economic crisis is really bad” and we don’t want to buy “rotten food,” said Maribel Godinez, who participated in the press conference and indentified herself as an El Super customer.
She said cleanliness is an issue in other areas as well, such as the shopping carts, which she said “are very dirty.”
They say that it is our fault, but we don’t bring them from our homes, they have them here.”
A statement released to the press also claims that at least “one third of stores visited had what appeared to be visible blood” and “one in five stores had visible, unidentified slime” inside one or more meat coolers.
“Just because we are low-income people that doesn’t mean we deserve to be sold expired products,” Maria Cabildo, president of East Los Angeles Community Corporation told EGP. “For me, working with low-income people who do not have a car, [I see] they are walking to the market and have very limited choices of where to buy,” she said.
But expiration dates on products are not always a legal indicator as to when a product can no longer be sold. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states on its website that “administers do not preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label” and the information is “entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.”
“Unfortunately, in the state of California it is not illegal to sell spoiled food, this is a big loophole and I think it is a loophole that we want to see closed,” Mike Shimpock, spokesperson of the Grocery Workers Union told EGP. “This is something that we did in order to raise the profile of what’s happening and to try to shame El Super into selling quality of food that consumers deserve,” he added.
While many people find product being sold past a product’s “sell by,” “best used by,” or “use or freeze by” labels, numerous studies have shown that the dates do not always indicate the last day that a product is still safe to consume.
“[They] have the resources and ability to set the bar for ethnic grocers in Southern California,” Richard Holober, executive director of Consumer Federation of California said in a press release. “Instead, we find serious violations of the County Health Code and potentially unsafe business practices.”
EGP contacted El Super and Francisco Aguirre Jr. community relations manager sent a statement saying that the press conference was the outcome to the negotiation of a labor agreement between the union and the company.
“During labor disputes, a lot of claims get made, often without any basis in fact. This is no exception. While the union wants [Tuesday’s] event to appear to stem from the community, reality is that it was a union orchestrated event and the allegations which were raised are meritless and unwarranted,” said Aguirre in the statement.
El Super is a multinational company owned in 80 percent by Mexico-base retailer Grupo Comercial Chedraui and which reported $120 millions in profits on 2012.
“We take the issue of public health very seriously, and so should El Super,” states the letter sent on February 18, 2014.
Twitter @jackieguzman