Central Valley

Fruit cup sales prompt warning

It's not uncommon to see vendors selling cups of sliced watermelon and cantaloupe at busy central San Joaquin Valley intersections.

But health officials are warning people not to buy the fruit cups, saying the sales are illegal and unsanitary conditions could lead to foodborne illnesses.

Many of the vendors -- some of whom are Los Angeles County residents -- have been picked up and dropped off at street corners to sell the goods, said Keith Winkler, director of Kings County's Department of Environmental Health Services.

"Usually, they have a folding table and umbrella and maybe a crate to sit on," he said. "They don't have any restroom facilities or any transportation. They're just dropped out in these places."

It's not clear how many vendors are illegally selling the fruit cups. But officials throughout the Valley say it's a problem they have tried to address in recent years.

Winkler said Kings County has seen a spike in fruit vendors this year. He said it's likely that one person or a group of people are behind the business. Most of the time, he said, the vendors don't have much information on who sent them to the street corners.

"They're just farmworkers, and they don't know anything other than they have a chance to make a couple of dollars," Winkler said.

In Fresno County last year, officials received 125 complaints about food vendors -- such as people illegally selling homecooked food from the back of car trunks. Six of those complaints were specific to fruit vendors. This year, the county has received 44 complaints of illegal food vendors, four of which dealt with fruit vendors.

Officials say people who don't need permits are those who sell uncut fruits at farmers markets or those who are selling baskets of strawberries or peaches on their farmland.

Several years ago, Fresno County officials created a task force to monitor illegal street vendors, such as those selling toys, flowers, sunglasses and food. The goal was to keep the vendors from undercutting legitimate businesses and putting themselves and others at risk by darting in and out of traffic, said Stephanie Kahl, a supervising specialist for the county's environmental health division.

Kahl said that for years the county has tried to keep cut fruit from roadways because it can easily harbor bacteria such as salmonella. She said there is little information about sanitation: Are the knives clean? Do the vendors and food preparers practice good personal hygiene?

"Any cut fruit is considered potentially hazardous," she said. "You're setting yourself up for a potential illness."

Kahl said that when illegal fruit vendors are caught, the fruit is usually destroyed and information about the vendors is usually turned over to the District Attorney's Office. Prosecutors then decide whether to fine the vendors -- which could be anywhere from $100 to $300, more if cases go to court.

"The reality is," Kahl said, "they may stop for some time but they find another corner."

Officials say the vendors fail to properly refrigerate the fruit or protect it from dirt and insects, such as flies.

Tulare County officials say they have dumped many bins filled with cut fruit, said Larry Dwoskin, the county's environmental health director.

He said inspectors have discovered that many vendors have been encouraged to buy fruit from a distributor.

"When we destroy that fruit, it's not at the expense of the real distributor," Dwoskin said.

"It's really kind of a shame from that perspective, although we view it as public health intervention."