Experts say the practices that lead to food contamination—storing it improperly and unsanitary habits–are on the rise in New York City meat markets.
But even failing numerous health inspections still is not enough to shut a store down.
For example, after three failed health inspections and several citations, the Super Halal Meat Market located at 253-06 Hillside Ave. in Bellerose, Queens was given 60 days in September to correct violations or officials would revoke its license to operate. While there’s less than 10 days left for it to comply, there’s no guarantee the store may close.
“If there’s a critical violation we inspect within the next month,” says Michael Moran, a spokesperson for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. “We don’t have the power to force them to close. We have to push for a public hearing.”
The Food Safety and Inspection Division of the department visits places where food is produced, shipped or processed. The potential hazard to the public determines the number of inspections done yearly, according to its website.
Sen. Tony Avella led civic leaders and nearly 70 residents in a protest in September at the halal store in Bellerose, one of several demonstrations that have occurred since it opened, about unsanitary habits, among other critical violations.
“This has become a nightmare for residents,” said Avella during the protest. “The whole quality of life in the neighborhood is gone.”
The 24-hour grocery store owned by Sheraz Khan has racked up nearly $2,500 worth of fines from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Avella noted that the department cited the store for flies being present in meat processing area, unwrapped meat stored inside of shopping carts and a hand washing facility and restroom that lacked proper sanitary accommodations.
While Khan said that no one notified him of a 60-day rule, he added that he has gotten several of the problems resolved and that he is doing everything he can to correct his mistakes and comply with the laws. However, he claimed the real problem is not about the violations.
“What’s going through my mind is that this is a racial issue. I’m a minority and this is not fair,” said Khan. “It’s like, what am I doing? Am I beating people up? Am I selling drugs? Am I selling alcohol? Am I selling prostitutes? No. I have people making a living over here. They have families. I’m doing the right thing over here. I have the cheapest prices in the whole town. What do they want?”
Divide between patrons and protesters
According to Khuram Khan, the owner’s cousin, none of the residents protesting actually shop at the store and many of their actual shoppers, Indians and Pakistanis, would come and support the store if they knew what was going on in the community.
“How many Asian people do you see outside? Indian? Pakistani? None. There’s nobody’s here and they all live on this block,” said Khuram. “This is an Indian neighborhood basically and they are not here.”
Several shoppers, who were from India and Ghana, agreed and defended the store, asserting that they had no complaints and have been shopping there since it opened in October 2010.
One person coming out of the store with groceries said he loves what the owners are doing for the community and that the protests were “absolutely” not justified.
“He’s giving the services. He’s giving the food and all the necessary time – 24 hours. There’s no other store open here 24 hours,” said Siddiqui Najeeb, a resident in the neighborhood for three years. “If something’s wrong he’s going to correct it.”
Records indicate trouble
Still, the citations paint a different picture.
Avella stated that he didn’t know whether any of the complaints against Super Halal came from shoppers, but attributed any absence of concern on patrons’ part to customers not realizing they are getting meat and poultry that’s not “properly kept” according to the heath code.
“Sometimes you buy a piece of food, you get sick later on, you don’t make the correlation,” said Avella. “It would be very interesting to see people who bought food from this location who may have gotten sick.”
Food inspectors routinely examine grocery stores to check sanitary and storage conditions and food preparation procedures. However, investigatory inspections are often prompted by consumer complaints, according to the markets department website.
On average, 76 million Americans contract food-borne illnesses every year. Since February of 2011 there have been 48 million cases of gastrointestinal illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the protest, Avella showed three pictures taken by residents of men storing unwrapped meat in a shopping cart that was delivered on the bed of an unrefrigerated pick-up truck.
“Now it doesn’t take a genius to realize that’s unsanitary,” said Avella. “You have to feel sorry for the people going to this market thinking their buying reputable foods.”
Khan, who has 25 employees, said that those pictures were very old and that the delivery occurred when the store first opened.
“If it ever came in those trucks the meat was returned. That’s from the vendor. That’s not our fault because they bring it like that,” said Khan. “Usually it comes in an enclosed truck.”
More than health concerns
Many Bellerose residents, most of whom were white and all of whom acknowledged they were not shoppers at the store, said that this wasn’t a racial issue and they weren’t necessarily looking for the store to close. They just want the violations corrected.
“I live on the block. I have nothing against the owners. They are a business who’s trying to make money,” said John Patel, a resident of 25 years. “The problem is the store is completely illegal. If it was legal I would just accept it and have to live with it.”
In addition to the citations given by the agriculture department there are over $23,000 worth of violations issued by the New York City Department of Buildings. Since May 2010, 69 complaints have been filed, 10 of which are still open, and six violations issued, three of which have not been resolved.
Some of those violations include exposed wiring, illegally installed refrigerator compressors, garbage and dumpsters in the rear side yard, among a list of other violations.
Furthermore, since August 2010 the New York City Environmental Control Board issued 17 violations against the store, 13 of which have not been resolved.
Many neighbors have also complained about the noise from the compressors and night deliveries, a din loud enough to cause one neighbor to actually move away.
“I’m OK with the store being there,” said Jennifer Newsom, who has lived in the area since 1995 when the butcher shop was a Blockbuster. “I feel like if they can correct the quality of life issues – the smells, the noise from the compressors and the air conditioning units—I’d stay.”
While the owner admitted to having regrets, he insisted that everything would be taken care of.
“We’re not ignoring anything, but it takes time,” said Khan. “If I knew this was going to happen I would have never opened up over here. But it’s too late to turn back now. I’ve spent too much money here.”
Despite several calls over the two months since the protest, Khan could not be reached to comment on his progress.