It wasn’t your average undercover sting or your usual contraband.
San Joaquin County investigators launched the stealthy operation to infiltrate a 15,000-person ring — actually, a Facebook group — that peddled not cocaine or heroin or illegal weapons, but homemade food and recipes.
Six people were busted by the investigators, but it was the case of Mariza Ruelas, a 37-year-old mother of six, and her ceviche that gained the most notoriety. For selling 32 ounces of the citrus-marinated raw fish or seafood dish that is served cold, county prosecutors charged her with operating a food facility and business without a license.
They were misdemeanor charges, but Ruelas faced the possibility of jail time. Her defense attorney said it was an over-the-top approach that wasted taxpayer money.
“I didn’t consider it a business, and neither did my attorney,” she said. “It’s not something I did every day.”
But San Joaquin County Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Sherri Adams said the case has been misunderstood — and misrepresented. She said there are significant health risks behind selling food the way Ruelas did.
“If one person gets salmonella or E. coli and they die, then we’d be the first person they’d contact to say, ‘Why didn’t we do anything about this?’ ” Adams said. “That’s our main objective — people who operate these types of businesses out of their home; there’s no oversight. They could be doing it in their dirty garage, in their kitchen with no sanitation.”
Ruelas complained that she was offered a stiffer plea agreement than the others: three years’ probation, 80 hours of community service and a $253 same fine. But Adams said that was because she continued to advertise her meals online even after she was charged.
San Joaquin County prosecutors got some support from health and food-safety experts.
I’m sympathetic to the situation, but it’s all about public safety. What would you say to that person if their child consumed that food and that child died?
“I’m sympathetic to the situation, but it’s all about public safety,” said Roger Clemens, a professor and food safety, law and regulation expert at USC. “What would you say to that person if their child consumed that food and that child died? It’s a waste of money, but gee, if it was my son or daughter, I’d feel different.”
According to the district attorney’s office, the sting concluded with citations against six people, charging each with two misdemeanors of operating a business and food facility without proper permits.
The county launched its investigation in 2014 after someone reportedly got sick from food bought through the food group, named 209 Food Spot, Adams said.
Authorities monitored the group and mailed letters to members they found were advertising their meals online, telling them to stop, she said. Ruelas was among those who received a letter, according to Adams. Ruelas denies getting any letter.
When Ruelas and the five other defendants failed to comply, the case was handed to the district attorney’s office, which launched the sting that ended with Ruelas’ ceviche sale.
“Her offer was community service. She’s making more of this than it is,” Adams said of Ruelas, who has taken her case to the media. “It’s not the big, bad D.A.’s office trying to take this woman down.”
Don Atkinson-Adams, Alameda County’s chief of environmental protection, said the “California Health and Safety Code seeks to regulate retail food. I would like to know that the food being sold to me is properly prepared by someone who knows what they are doing.”
He said California allows for some small-batch sales of food prepared in home kitchens. But a 2013 law, known as the California Homemade Food Act, skews heavily toward jams, pastries and confections such as fudge and flavored popcorn — not the type of food Ruelas cooks with regularity. Meat, which is more susceptible to food-borne illness, is forbidden.
As for Ruelas’ serving serious jail time, Adams said that would not happen.
“Really? That would never happen,” she said with a laugh.
In fact, the prosecutor said, if Ruelas is convicted, she would probably get no “more than 10 days in county jail” for selling illegal ceviche.