D.C. Council member David A. Catania questioned Tuesday whether involvement by one of his colleagues caused a Northeast produce market shuttered for rats to reopen sooner than it should have been allowed.
Calling Council member Vincent B. Orange’s involvement “totally bizarre,” Catania said his colleague may have “crossed a line” that should separate the legislative branch of government from regulatory agencies.
“What authority do we have to police and enforce the regulations?” asked Catania, the former chairman of the Health Committee. “We have them to be independently administered...Why are there individual members compelled to self-deputize themselves as health inspectors?”
On Monday, the Titan of Trinidad blog and several media outlets reported that Orange showed up Sam Wang Produce at the Florida Avenue market on Dec. 21 as health inspectors were preparing to shutter it for a rodent infestation and other violations. Inspectors had found “numerous rodent droppings” and discovered that rats had chewed through egg shell cartons, according to the inspection report.
After arriving at the market during the inspection, Orange repeatedly asked to speak to the inspectors’ bosses, but the store was still ordered to close. It was allowed to reopen the following day following a second inspection, records show.
Orange said through a spokesman he got involved because the closure would ”have caused 40 employees to be off work without pay during the Christmas holiday, loss of business income, loss of D.C. tax revenue and effect consumers who purchase wholesale produce for their business operations. “
The owners of the produce company and an affiliated company have been major contributors to Orange’s political campaigns, dating to his run for mayor in 2006, records show.
Catania, chaired the Health Committee for the past eight years, said “absent political pressure” the produce shop probably shouldn’t have been allowed to reopen a day later.
“You would want these situations to be remedied as expeditiously as possible and you want an unbiased government official to confirm that the remediation had taken place,” said Catania, who continues to serve on the Health Committee. “But anytime you involve an elected official in the mix, putting their thumb on the scale, it certainly skews the appropriate and proper administration of the law.”
James D. Brown, an Orange spokesman, declined to comment on Catania’s statement.
But Najma Roberts, a Health Department spokeswoman, said Orange’s involvement in the situation played no role in the agency’s decision to allow the store to reopen on Dec. 22.
“They followed the exact same procedures that any other restaurant follows that want to be open the next day,” Roberts said. “They didn’t do anything different and we didn’t do anything different. There have been plenty of restaurants that work through the night, call exterminators, and we open them the next day.”
Robert Sudler, head of the Health Department’s Food Program division, said it’s a misconception that District restaurants and grocery stores “have to be rat free.”
He noted the law states food establishments merely have to be taking “necessary precautions” to avoid a rodent infestation, such as having proof of exterminator visits and allowing visible signs of rodents to fester.
But Sudler said a food establishment can quickly pass re-inspection if they work with an exterminator to remove rodent droppings and greasy rat “rub marks” and plug holes.
“We don’t know how many rats are in a place when we go in and do an inspection,” Sudler said. “All we know is the evidence we see.”
Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), the new chairwoman of the Health Committee, said she wants the city to hire additional health inspectors. But Alexander said she sees no reason to modify current rodent standards for food establishments. .
“When do you reopen a place? When you do a close place,” Alexander asked. “If you take every precaution, how can you blame a business? Sometimes, in food establishments, if there is a rodent that happens to come in, that may not be an infestation.”