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California and the West

Hot on the Trail of Perilous Food

Health: In booming, broiling Vegas, an inspector patrols construction sites where vendors often skirt hygiene rules.

July 06, 1999|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — A radio station pegs the temperature at 118 degrees at 4 p.m., and food cop Mark Gillespie is hot on the trail of what he calls "little sandwich time bombs."

Gillespie inspects mobile food vendors for the Clark County Health District, and his job is tough enough under normal conditions. These days, he's worried about what effect the temperature might have on the food sold to the legions of construction workers sweating to build instant suburbs and resort hotels in this burgeoning region.

Today, he's peering inside a food truck's empty compartment, where tuna-and-mayo sandwiches are supposed to be stored below 45 degrees. The refrigerator thermometer reads 90 and the air compressor is making an awful squeal, struggling hard. Gillespie winces.

"Jimmy, get your compressor fixed and come back tomorrow," Gillespie demands sternly, sending Jimmy home without a permit.

Usually, Gillespie is an affable man, recently retired as team captain of "The Flying Elvi," memorable for their scene-stealing performance as the skydiving Elvis Presley impersonators in the film "Honeymoon in Vegas." But easygoing Gillespie tolerates little when it comes to food safety.

He prowls the city for shaved-ice vendors who use syrup manufactured in Mexico that contains undisclosed amounts of a sweet, heavy-metal chemical common to antifreeze and tightly regulated as a food additive in this country.

He looks for backyards where ears of corn are boiled in galvanized buckets--dangerous because the zinc can leach into the cobs--and then illegally hawked by neighborhood entrepreneurs pushing shopping carts stocked with unrefrigerated condiments.

Then there's what Gillespie calls "the tamale brigade"--women who prepare tamales and burritos for their construction-trade husbands to sell to co-workers. Other tamale hawkers sneak onto job sites in hard hats, looking like regular workers carrying their ice chests.

And there are what Gillespie calls the Little Red Riding Hoods: women who make sandwiches and salads in unregulated home kitchens, then stuff them into hot car trunks to sell at local businesses.

Gillespie says it may be serendipitous that there have been no outbreaks this summer of food-borne illnesses. He won't let his guard down, especially during these hot, hot days when the challenge to keep food safe is the greatest.

"Oh, to be in Los Angeles, where it's only 80 or 90," he said while patrolling in his car, air conditioner blowing at max. "I tell my food vendors, if you can pass an inspection here, you can pass one anywhere."

This is a city built on image and reputation--not only for its slot machines, but also for food--and the last thing it needs is a food poisoning scandal, even if the problem occurs at a suburban construction site miles from the Strip.

"If we have an outbreak, it'll hit the newspapers fast," said Lonnie Empey, the county's environmental health supervisor. "And because we have such a viable tourist industry, the impact could be tremendous."

Three dozen health inspectors are assigned to the hotel buffet lines and restaurants in town, although the resort operators are generally good at self-policing because they know what bad food can do for business, authorities say.

Most tourists don't happen across mobile food vendors. Nor do they see the corn and shaved-ice peddlers who are banned in Clark County but quietly walk the Latino neighborhoods where they traditionally have been welcomed.

Gillespie monitors about 400 licensed food vendors, ranging from mobile hot-food kitchens to trucks peddling prepackaged cold sandwiches to the ubiquitous ice cream trucks. While he's pressed to the limits, Clark County's overall mobile food vendor population is small potatoes compared with Los Angeles County, home to more than 6,000 licensed food vendors, ranging from mobile hot kitchens to hot dog pushcarts.

But as Clark County continues to explode as one of the fastest-growing metropolitan regions in the country, the number of vendors is increasing.

In fact, a growing number of produce and fruit hucksters from California is appearing on street corners, he said, and big vans bearing California license plates drive local streets selling groceries door to door--without health permits and using who-knows-what food handling procedures.

Nailing such operators is catch-as-catch-can. So Gillespie concentrates on job sites, where he is almost guaranteed to find violators.

During a surprise visit near a new housing tract, he found refried beans being warmed in a painted clay pot, which could transmit lead to the food, and a large jar of mayonnaise sitting in an oppressively hot mobile kitchen.

He scolded the driver of another food truck for not individually packaging paper plates of chicken and taquitos because they could be contaminated by grungy, perspiring workers pawing the shelves.

A man at another site was selling homemade tamales out of the trunk of his car. He was easy to catch; his sign gave him away.

A construction site foreman on the Strip was trickier. He built a shed where his wife could make and sell food, then posted photocopies of someone else's permits. A bona fide vendor squealed on him.

Gillespie says he wins few friends when he closes down food operations. "Construction workers are a strange lot," he said. "You take their lunch away and they get pretty angry. They don't understand that I'm doing this for their own good."

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