SVP, Vendors, and Cesar Fuentes “Shocked” By New Seafood Ban

The brand new version of Article 89 of the Health Code of NYC, which now outlaws all seafood, fish, and shellfish from being prepared or sold by street vendors, takes effect in just 15 days. And as yesterday’s news makes its way through the vendor community (and those love it) it’s looking more and more like the Department of Health slipped this rule in under our noses. A small percentage of vendors in New York City sell seafood, and some might be able to get rid of it without a huge impact on their bottom line- like the tianbula from the NYC Cravings Truck (“chicken and pork chops are our bread and butter”). But for vendors like the Schnitzel Truck and Kwik Meal, (and street food lovers like us) it’s a far bigger deal.

Schnitzel Truck owner Oleg had this to say:

“If fish is stored, prepared and sold properly, why is it assumed to be more dangerous than meat or poultry that can also easily spoil if not kept under proper conditions. We feel that our cod schnitzel is a great addition to the menu and adds another dimension to the overall experience of eating from a food truck. There are numerous customers that only eat the cod from us and we feel terrible that we’ll have to remove it from the menu.”

I also spoke to Kwik Meal owner Muhammad Rahman, and he seemed genuinely speechless that he might have to give up selling something he’s been cooking for years.

He only sells about 15-20 orders of fish each day (roughly 10 percent), but many of his customers love the fish and he sounded pretty upset when I let him know about the new rule.

I was a little anxious to ask vendors like Muhammad if they had heard the news, because we still don’t know exactly how the Department of Health is going to react on January 1st. Are they going to start canvassing the city right after New Years, looking for seafood? Or is it the kind of thing that could fly under the radar for awhile.

If the Department of Health actively punishes vendors over the new rule it could mean the end for vendors like Kim’s Aunt Kitchen Cart (on 46th and 6th.) They sell other things, but fried fish is their “bread and butter”. Seafood is also a staple of the Red Hook ballfield vendors, who have had their fair share of dealings with the Department of Health. I asked Director Cesar Fuentes if he had heard about this new rule:

“No, I don’t think any one of us was previously aware or advised of this reg. I am truly shocked. I will need to meet with the Rojas’ (our ceviche vendors) and further inquire about this in order to determine a course of action.”

And finally, what about the Chinatown and Flushing vendors? Could this be the end of fish balls?

The most shocking thing about the whole ordeal is how under the radar something like this is. This law was voted on almost a year ago, and yet the city makes no real effort to let the vendors know about the rule changes. Most will likely find out about the new rule when they get their first ticket sometime after January 1st.

I spoke to Sean Basinski, the Director of the Street Vendor Project, to find out if this is standard practice when it comes to dealing with street vendors.

Have you spoken to anybody at the Department of Health about this? Did they give any sort of rationale for this rule? We testified against these proposals at the hearing in October 2008, but I don’t remember the fish and seafood provision. Either it wasn’t in the original proposal or we missed it. But even if we’d had a hundred vendors at the hearing I don’t think it would have made a difference. In fact, at one hearing we did have 200 vendors there testifying against the city’s proposal and they did not listen. Somebody got it in their head that this was bad and they decided to ban it. That happens quite a bit. The DOH does not care what the vending community or the general public think. As far as I am concerned they are bureaucrats and petty tyrants.

BTW, one thing to keep in mind is that there are already Health rules vendors must follow regarding the temperature of the food (it must be kept below 40 degrees, except when you are cooking it), the source (you must get food from an “approved source”), etc. So people concerned about fish coming from the East River or sitting out in the hot sun are missing the point — that’s already illegal. I am not a food safety expert but I can’t see any reason to single out fish and seafood. In fact it is some of the healthiest food available on the street. The Health Department should be encouraging it.

Also, while the fish ban might not put any vendors out of business entirely (except maybe the Red Hook ceviche vendors?), I don’t know how the smoothie/fruit salad vendors are going to deal with the requirement that they have “adequate refrigeration” (whatever that means) for the vast quantities of fruit they go through. There are 15-20 smoothie vendors that I know of, all from one extended Vietnamese family that pioneered this idea, and I’m worried they will not survive this change.

How serious do you think they are going to be about enforcement of these new rules? Very serious. The DOH inspectors are very strict. They will give tickets (likely $300) and confiscate the fish or seafood. I don’t know if they will have a grace period, but when the trans-fat ban went into effect a couple years ago, they definitely did NOT give warnings first.

Do the vendors even know? No, I guarantee you that vendors do not know about this. The Health Department did not notify them individually and is not required to by law. The only way they would know is if they happened to read the City Record (still not even available online) a year and a half ago.

Is there anything we can do to change the DOH’s mind? Their mind is officially made up, but they are not immune to public outcry. I like the idea of a big fish fry in front of their offices to protest the changes. The fish ban affects a miniscule portion of our members, so I doubt we can get many of them there, but maybe some customers would turn out?

Fish fry? I like the sound of it. I’ll bring the tartar sauce.  More on this as it develops…

Department of Health Bans Street Vendors From Selling Seafood


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