Keisha Davis still remembers the smell of rotten food in the air during her last visit to Gateway Market.
In June of this year, she made a run to the East St. Louis store to get a few items, but walked out without the items she needed after spotting a cooler stocked with brown and discolored meat.
“I haven’t been back,” Davis said two months after that visit. “I feel like they need to get it together. ”
Davis said she couldn’t understand why meat that appeared to be spoiled was still available for sale at the 25th Street store. A Belleville News-Democrat investigation found two months later that expired meat covered with mold was still in the cooler at the store’s smaller location a few miles down the road.
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“This is what they are selling us,” Davis said Tuesday. “I feel like everyone should know.”
Gateway Market has two stores in East St. Louis, where local residents can buy produce, meat, dairy and other grocery staples. For a short time, residents say both markets provided a convenient place to shop after Schnucks closed in 2015. Lately the community has noticed changes.
“The food is terrible,” East St. Louis resident and former Gateway shopper Lakeesha Thomas said. “Really terrible.”
Thomas complained about the expired food to the East St. Louis City Council and the East Side Health District. She expressed her concerns after she unknowingly gave her son and his friends expired juice from the store’s location at 2511 State St.
“I already had the kids drinking this stuff,” Thomas told the council June 14. “That’s what made me start to pay attention more when I do have to go in there really quick.”
A quick trip inside Gateway Market feels notably different than other grocery stores in the metro-east.
Gateway shoppers can’t feel most of the fruit before purchasing it. Instead, it is packaged and wrapped in yellow Styrofoam trays.
The BND investigation noted pears, oranges and plums were labeled as “meat” in a cooler sparingly stocked with a mix of fruits and vegetables. Green mold was visible through the plastic film on a package of oranges on a recent Monday afternoon. Most molds prefer warmer temperatures but can also grow at refrigerator temperatures, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
“Molds also tolerate salt and sugar better than most other food invaders,” the UDSA warns. “Therefore, molds can grow in refrigerated jams and jelly and on cured, salty meats — ham, bacon, salami, and bologna.”
Consuming mold can also make you sick.
At Gateway Market’s smaller location at 7600 State St., meat stamped with a May 24, 2018, expiration date was still available for purchase on Aug. 13, a Belleville News-Democrat reporter found during a visit. Large spots of green and white mold covered sausage links in the store’s hot dog cooler.
A store clerk tried to stop the purchase of moldy meat and fruit, calling the condition of the oranges “ridiculous.” Three days later, a manager who answered the phone said he saw and heard the clerk attempt to stop the transaction on surveillance video that he reviewed.
A health department inspection report dated Aug. 14 stated that fresh produce was delivered to the store twice weekly and that both managers and employees evaluate the quality of produce each day.
St. Clair County property records list the owner of the 2511 State St. store as State Street Center, LLC. The mailing address for the property owner is 85 Metro Way Secaucus, New Jersey. Mustafa Makhlouf is listed as the property owner for the store’s smaller location, according to county property records. His mailing address is listed as 7600 State Street, which is also Gateway Market’s address.
When asked about the mold, a man who identified himself as a store manager said that location’s hot dog cooler needed Freon. The manager, who identified himself initially as “Mike” before refusing to provide his last name, blamed employees for not removing the moldy meat from the cooler. The owner of both stores could not immediately be reached for comment.
“This is not right,” Natavia Sanders, a former deputy liquor commissioner with the city, told city councilmen June 14. “Someone should be aggressive about it.”
In the June city council meeting, one councilman told residents to visit another store in town. Save-A-Lot has two locations in town and a Neighbors’ Market recently opened at 1005 N. 15th St.
That suggestion wasn’t good enough for Sanders, who recently was without a car. Going to another market wasn’t always an option.
Sanders said she planned to seek help outside the health department if City Council could not find a way to fix the issues. Councilman Roy Mosley said he would contact the health department for help. He also asked Sanders and Thomas to present evidence of the problem.
“I have to take your word for it, but do you have any proof?” Mosley said. “Do you have pictures? Do you have any food you have purchased from the place? I like what you’re saying ... We can’t just go in. We have to have proof and documentation.”
Thomas had more than a dozen photos taken inside the store showing expired meat available for sale. Myla Oliver-Blandford, assistant administrator of Environmental Health Programs at East Side Health District, says seeing expired food isn’t a health code violation unless the food appears to be moldy, leaking or visibly spoiled.
“We’re conducting routine inspections,” Oliver-Blandford said. “If there are problems, let us know.”
Code enforcement and complaints
Documents obtained by the BND through the Freedom of Information Act show that, since the beginning of this year, East Side Public Health District has received complaints about spoiled chicken, bad meat and an employee smoking in the store.
The health department investigated each complaint, according to the records, then documented each either as being resolved or that corroborating evidence was not found.
When the BND contacted the health department about expired meat and moldy oranges, an East St. Louis health inspector visited the store the next day, but reported finding no signs of “spoilage, mold or discharge.”
The manager showed the health inspector invoices for the produce, the documents state. Bananas, pears and celery “showed signs of less than average quality.”
Other inspections within the last year asked the grocer to properly discard food after a power outage and maintain the proper temperatures for coolers and freezers.
Sanders said she’s noticed improvements at the 25th Street location, but still feels more can be done for residents who depend on the market.
Individuals filing complaints can be anonymous. They should be able to provide specific information including the establishment’s name, a specific complaint or observation, the date and time and whether store management was notified.
Anyone with concerns about any retail food establishment within East Side Health District’s jurisdiction (East St. Louis, Stites, Canteen, Centreville townships) should call 618-271-8722; ext. 538.
BND staff reporter Mike Koziatek contributed to this report.