The foodie crackdown

Regulators shut down Underground Market, triggering debate over permits and food safety

From homemade Kombucha to gourmet pizza, the Underground Market was a foodie's playground before it was shut down

Yet another blow was dealt to the San Francisco's free-thinking food scene on June 11 when the final Underground Market was staged by ForageSF, at least for the time being. The market was shut down by the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) in a clash between small-time food businesses and city officials over permitting and regulatory issues.

"I was ready for this for a while," ForageSF founder Iso Rabins told us. "I thought someone would show up eventually to say something about this, and now they have."

Rabins began the Underground Market in 2009 as a monthly venue for food entrepreneurs to share their goods without financial and bureaucratic red tape. It's basically a farmers market without the permits, fees, and commercial kitchen requirements that add thousands of dollars to the cost of staging an event. Throw in live music, drinks, a little subversive thrill, and you've got a gathering that has proven enormously popular.

Until now, the market has operated as a private event. It is held in a private space and attendees are required to sign a membership form and pay a $5 entrance fee. It's become a huge draw for foodies, with 1,500 to 3,200 patrons per event, according to Rabins, so the state government got wind of its largely unregulated operations.

Alicia Saam, the temporary events coordinator with SFDPH, says her department was asked by state officials to observe the market. It's now too big to be considered private, she says, so it must adhere to health code and public safety regulations just like any other public event.

"One of the things that differentiate private versus public events is how much advertisement goes out there," Saam said. "Something that is advertised and has grown big enough to have a following, that becomes a concern for us as a public event."

Without official oversight, rules are bound to be broken. As with any novice venture, mistakes are made. When officials came to the Underground Market, they saw some vendors acting more like friends at a house party than professional food vendors, which is the complicated line that the market tries to toe.

"We observed operators and vendors eating and then handling the food, and that's a huge contamination hazard for us," Saam said. "They weren't washing their hands before continuing food service, nor did they have a hand-washing set-up right there at their booth. There looked to be temperature issues as far as some of the food that was being stored, such as protein foods, sausages, and dairy. Some foods were not protected but were displayed on the table uncovered. People come up and they're excited and curious, there's a lot of creativity there, so they're hovering over the food and possibly contaminating it with all sorts of things. The source of food, such as the kitchen where the food is coming from, needs to be an approved space where there are no animals, or cats like in some homes. It needs to be a commercial space that is properly cleaned and sanitized."

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, one in six Americans get sick each year from eating contaminated food. Salmonella infection is of particular concern because food can be contaminated anywhere from the fields to kitchen surfaces.

The SFDPH has already allowed the Underground Market to operate unregulated for more than a year without any reported food illnesses, but Rabins is quick to agree that these health concerns are real.

"I do believe that these issues of health are important, and although I feel that all the vendors at the market are very careful about what they make, we do want to institute some Serve-Safe classes, basic food safety," Rabins says.

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