Scanning for signs of clandestine food peddling, Maricopa County inspector Mark Tom spots his target: A grocery cart being loaded into a late-model white van.
Tom punches the accelerator, whips his truck around and blocks the van, which was about to speed off. Opening the back of the van, Tom finds the evidence he’s looking for crammed inside — grocery carts, peddlers, ice chests full of corn-on-the-cob — all proof of an illegal food-selling operation on Mesa streets, he said.
“I’ve seen you before,” Tom tells a woman sitting in the passenger seat. “Don’t go anywhere.”
The sight is common and almost impossible to control, said Tom, one of only five mobile unit inspectors covering the county. Mesa is among many hot spots for street-side peddling of sandwiches, hot dogs, tamales, burritos, ice cream and corn. More than 2,200 mobile units operate legally in the county, but inspectors say hundreds more are illegally selling homemade food from trash bags, grocery carts and the trunks of their cars.
They don’t have permits, and few could have their food-selling practices approved by the county. Permits require that food be prepackaged or cooked in a commercial or public kitchen that can be inspected.
For Tom, the hordes of illegal food-sellers mean days spent hunting down mobile units, writing citations and confiscating food. But too often, Tom is writing up the same people in a new place.
“It’s the illegal ones we can’t seem to control, and that’s frustrating,” he said. “It’s a game. It’s professional hide-and-seek, and they’re real good at it.”
Jessica Lemus, co-owner of Big Dog’s Fun Spot, a pool hall in Mesa, said the county’s inspection program can be discriminatory toward Hispanics and permitted establishments. Tom inspected Lemus’ permitted hot dog cart Wednesday and issued a warning for selling nachos, which are not permitted on a hot dog cart. Lemus called the action unfair.
“They should watch all these people selling on the street,” she said. “We try to play the right way, yet we’re the ones that get targeted.”
Tom said his job is to make sure food is being served and handled safely, so people don’t get sick.
“I don’t want to give the impression I’m targeting a culture. I’m targeting food,” he said. “But right now, the majority are Hispanic. That’s just the way it is.”
At the northeast corner of Eighth Avenue and Center Street in Mesa, Tom stopped a man pushing a rattling grocery cart stocked with everything to dress up “elote,” or corn-on-the-cob.
The man pushing the cart, who carries a Mexican hospital identification card with the name Bautista Calisto Emiliano on it, says through an interpreter that he is from Phoenix. He and a crew of men were dropped off in Mesa with their carts full of food. Emiliano said he is not allowed to see the place where the food is made.
As inspectors target the source of illegally sold food, organizers try to avoid detection, Tom said. Peddlers are sometimes told by suppliers not to carry identification, which can make issuing a citation difficult without the help of a police officer.
“It’s very organized,” he said. “They’re well-coached. They know what to do. (Citations) are just a cost of doing business.”
The state Legislature recently raised fines from $500 to $750 for each day that food is sold without a permit or from unapproved sources. But judges can be lenient, fining them $100, according to county enforcement documents. A permit for selling prepackaged foods costs $120.
As Emiliano stands quietly in his jeans and baseball cap beside a police car, Mesa police officer Nate Boulter is preparing to arrest him on suspicion of peddling for the second time in about two months. Emiliano tells Boulter that he is trying to earn money to pay back his debt for coming to the United States from Mexico.
Many peddlers are new to the country and are just trying to survive, said Jose Cortez, a spokesman for Chicanos Por La Causa in Phoenix.
Tom explained to Emiliano how he could get a permit by selling only prepackaged foods such as bottled water or potato chips. But county health officials said it is unlikely that peddlers will stop selling popular food in low-cost ways.
“It can be a cultural thing,” said David Ludwig, manager of the county’s environmental health division. “As long as people are willing to buy, you’re going to have people willing to sell.”