Health violations close Ellicott City supermarket

Inspectors find rodent infestation, thawed food, dripping water

August 10, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

A crew of several dozen workers was busy cleaning the popular Lotte Plaza supermarket in Ellicott City yesterday after Howard County health officials closed the store for numerous health code violations.

"I personally inspected it today. It's not good," Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the county health commissioner, said yesterday. "It is one of two or three of the poorest examples of supermarket hygiene I've seen in 15 years." Beilenson is a former Baltimore health commissioner.

The Asian-themed supermarket on U.S. 40 was closed Tuesday evening for infractions that county food inspectors said included severe rodent infestation, frozen food that had thawed, water dripping from freezers onto food packaging and other maintenance problems.

Puzzled customers were greeted yesterday afternoon by locked doors and small handmade signs that said "closed for repairs" and "we will open soon" taped to the windows and doors.

A member of the cleaning crew said the manager speaks only Korean and had no comment.

The supermarket opened in 1999 in a former Super Fresh store to serve the area's Korean community. Since then, it has built a following among shoppers looking for Asian specialty foods.

Fatima Reyihani of Columbia said yesterday that she often shops at the store for vegetables on her way home from work in Catonsville.

"It is so upsetting" to find the store closed, Mehe Elmavawi of Ellicott City said. She said she mainly shops there for the fruit.

The adjacent food court, operated by independent vendors, was not shut down by the county. The food court has been inspected, and the vendors are operating within the health code, the Health Department said.

"We take the health of the food-buying public very seriously," Beilenson said. "Citizens can be sure that when the Plaza supermarket reopens, it will be safe to shop there."

Beilenson said county inspectors found multiple violations in May but by June had received no response from the market's owners. Inspectors returned in June and gave the store another detailed list of what had to be fixed, but again the county received no response, he said. The county fined the store $150 in May and again in June.

On Tuesday, inspectors returned a third time and found what Beilenson said were "worse problems," which led health officials to order the store closed.

In his inspection of Lotte Plaza yesterday, "I very quickly found multiple mouse droppings on nearly every stack of shelves, aisle after aisle," Beilenson said.

He said numerous holes in the store's walls have been sealed.

Temperatures in large storage freezers were "out of whack. In every single instance, food [in freezers] was soft to the touch," Beilenson said. It appeared that thawed meat had been refrozen with blood underneath, he said, and the basement showed evidence that water had been dripping on food packaging.

Inspectors also had photos of live turtles that the store was selling, although store managers denied they were selling turtles, he said.

"They are getting rid of large quantities of fish, meat and packaged food," Beilenson said.

County Executive Ken Ulman said yesterday that he had received calls asking that the store be reopened, but he said he supports Beilenson's decision to close the market until the violations are addressed.

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