By REUVEN FENTON and DAN MANGAN
September 15, 2008 --
Many owners of local bodegas, delis and other small food businesses are routinely violating health laws - and imperiling their customers' health - by transporting perishable food in nonrefrigerated vehicles after buying it wholesale, a Post investigation has found.
The scofflaws also frequently co-mingle their food during transport in a way that risks cross-contamination or tainting by toxic cleaners placed near the food.
On a recent day, at more than a half-dozen large "cash and carry" wholesalers in and around the city, a reporter spotted scores of small-business owners buying perishable food - meat, poultry, fish, dairy and vegetables - and placing it in nonrefrigerated trucks and cars.
At one wholesaler, Jetro Cash & Carry in The Bronx, 40 nonrefrigerated vehicles, several from out of state, were seen driving off with perishable food in one hour.
Four vehicles had food stacked next to toxic cleaners, and in other cases, customers routinely stacked packages of meat next to vegetables and dairy items, a major health no-no.
By law, such food must be transported at temperatures of less than 45 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the growth of bacteria such as salmonella and listeria that can sicken or even kill.
And meat and poultry, whose drippings can contaminate other food, must be kept segregated.
When told about what The Post reporter witnessed, Joseph Ferrara, director of the state Agriculture Department's division of food safety and inspection, said, "We've found similar problems."
He said that in the majority of cases, buyers at wholesale outlets are not using any refrigeration for the food or "they're typically using coolers."
"There are a significant number which are not cutting it," Ferrara said.
Bruce Krupke of the New York State Dairy Foods Association said enforcement of transport rules on customers of food wholesalers is "nonexistent, completely."
"I think it's too big a problem for the state to handle," Krupke said.
Krupke and others said the problem is growing, as more food businesses go to cash-and-carry outlets such as Costco to buy their inventory.
In one case, a reporter followed a nonrefrigerated vehicle whose owner had bought food at Restaurant Depot in Mount Vernon, Westchester County, and drove about 90 miles to Hudson, where it was dropped off at a restaurant, Ca' Mea.
Roy Felcetto, the eatery's owner, claimed the food had been on ice.
Stanley Fleishman, CEO of the company that operates 58 Restaurant Depot and Jetro food wholesalers nationwide, said, "We do not believe there is a problem with transporting perishables because we have programs to address the challenge and customers who need to stay in business."