Dozens of angry Park Heights residents carrying signs and seeking vindication packed a Health Department hearing yesterday, hoping to close down a grocer who inspectors say is selling bad food in their neighborhood.
In an emotional, combative and racially tinged meeting attended by local and national figures, health officials charged that the owner of Canaan Food Outlet committed violations including storing unrefrigerated eggs next to a toilet, selling moldy deli meats and pouring bleach over meat to avoid lab tests.
"He needs to get out," said Bill Goodin, who led a monthlong picket of Eun Mu Lee's Northwest Baltimore grocery store. "We are sending a message that you can't come into our community and sell" substandard food.
But Lee's attorney, Eugene J. Silverman, said that "the violations listed were significant but not that significant to warrant a suspension." Silverman said Lee had corrected the major problems.
The hearing, at Health Department offices on Guilford Avenue, was held to determine whether the city will revoke Lee's license permanently.
Running Lee out of business has become a flash point for residents, who are looking beyond the removal of a store to broader implications. They say that they are tired of stores coming in their neighborhoods to sell food that would never be sold in more upscale areas.
Benjamin F. Chavis, the former NAACP head and now leader of the National African American Leadership Summit, said at yesterday's hearing that the community's grass-roots effort to oust Lee should be seen as an example for blacks.
"It would be a mistake for anybody in Baltimore to see this as an isolated event," he said. "We intend to use this as a model for other black communities."
Health Department officials, who shut the store on Park Heights and Hayward avenues last week, will decide next week whether to revoke Lee's license.
The department hasn't revoked a license for five years, said department official Bernard Bochenck.
Since September, Lee has been charged with several health violations, including a broken toilet seat, leaky pipe, outdated canned goods and decomposing pasta.
Lee opened his store in August. In September, health inspectors forced him to discard about 50 pounds of outdated canned tomatoes and tomato soup. At the end of October, residents alleged that Lee was selling old meat. The Health Department re-inspected. Officials found no old meat, but listed other violations.
Last month, inspectors gave the store a clean bill of health, but residents had begun picketing and pressuring political leaders to close it. Health inspectors came back several times, found more violations and closed the store Nov. 27.
Silverman intimated yesterday that the Health Department was unduly scrutinizing Lee because of pressure from the community.
Just about anything that Silverman said in defense of Lee drew moans and catcalls and caused tempers to flare at the standing-room-only hearing.
Vice President Bernetha George of the Baltimore County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Silverman nearly came to blows during a break in the hearing. George said that Silverman threatened her, sparking one man who was angry at Silverman's actions to lunge at him.
George calmed the man and then jabbed her finger in Silverman's face, saying, "You think he's bad, I'll destroy you in here, and then I'll destroy you outside."
Anti-Semitic epithets were directed toward one man who attended in support of Lee. And a resident said to Lee, a Korean who moved to the United States in 1980, "This isn't Korea, we don't chop up dogs here and call it beef."
Pub Date: 12/07/96