Canine crackdown at CdM farmers market

The Corona del Mar Farmers Market is the village's go-to gathering spot Saturday mornings, where friends bump into one another while loading shopping bags with fresh eggs, flowers and fruit, often walking their dogs past signs that say "No Dogs Allowed."

Dogs violate certain health codes, and this summer, they caught the eye of a county health inspector.

The inspector "was concerned," said Mike Haller, manager for the Orange County Environmental Health Agency's Food Protection Program. "There were a lot of dogs."

Based on the July 7 visit, health inspectors issued a notice of violation to the market manager, Rick Heil. As a follow up, they held a hearing July 24, where they presented a slide show of the canine violations in the market.

"The inspector had taken photos of violations," Haller said. "There were different breeds of dogs. One picture, we have had three dogs. To our perspective, this is a certified farmers market that's kind of being overrun with dogs."

At the hearing Heil said there was a problem, Haller said.

Heil arrived at the hearing with drawings of the market and plans to add signs at all seven entrances, as well as fliers that he will hand out to those with dogs inside the market.

Because some residents walk dogs through the market but aren't actually shopping there, some dogs may always be present. But shoppers with dogs won't be allowed, Heil agreed, according to Haller.

"He's taking active, managerial responsibility," Haller said. "He is in full compliance now."

The California Retail Food Code, which is modeled on the Food and Drug Administration's food code, does not permit animals around food in retail establishments, Haller said.

Dogs must be 20 feet away from farmers' market food stalls.

"The law just wants to protect the food from cross-contamination," Haller said earlier this year. "Dogs want to go where the food is. There can be problems when they shake, when the fur flies, or they put their nose into things."

County health inspectors enforce the rules, making regular inspections, as well as inspections after a receiving a complaint.

The Corona del Mar Farmers Market received notices for violations for dogs in October 2007 and in January 2010, Haller said.

Until this summer, when a complaint was made, the market had been considered in compliance.

Last spring Heil said that enforcing the no-dog rules in the Corona del Mar market is difficult because it's on a city-owned lot, and dog walkers passing by have every right to do so.

"If I see them, and I know they're a shopper, I give them a flier" that explains the no-dog rules, Heil said then. "Unless the dog is off leash, I can't tell them to get the heck out. They are Corona del Mar people, and they do what they want to do."

In a telephone interview this week, Heil said the Health Department was "extremely happy with the way things are going."

"They seem to have the pulse," he said. "They seem to be the experts of the farmers market."

He added that he wished the person who made the complaint "would have enough guts to come to my face."

Haller said Heil is correct, and that after paying a fee of $358 for the July violation, and after agreeing in the hearing to make changes, the market again is in compliance.

But if dogs return to the market, the market's future could be in jeopardy.

Inspectors will return for surprise visits, and the market is on notice for a year, Haller said.

Heil will be charged $103 per hour for the hearing and all inspectors' time, Haller said.

"The incentive is to be in compliance," he said. "If they're not in compliance, it can be very costly."

Another violation likely would mean another notice and hearing, Haller said.

Repeat violations after that wold be considered misdemeanors, he said.

"After that it goes to the D.A. for prosecution," he said, "It could even shut down the market. There are some provisions in the code for jail time." But that is unlikely, he added.

"We want to see a pattern of compliance," he explained. "We want to see sustained compliance."

An inspector likely will return to the market before the end of the year.

Twitter: @coronadelmartdy

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