If television viewers were surprised to see rats scurrying through a Lexington Market food stand during Thursday night newscasts about a murder there, city health officials were not.
Only a month ago, a city inspector cited Lexington Market for rodent and insect infestation -- "roach, spider, flies, mouse, rat" -- in public areas of the market, as well as in the basement, according to a Dec. 31 violation notice describing the problems.
Inspectors have repeatedly documented such evidence, but it has never been severe enough to require any of the dozens of food businesses at the market to close, said Bernard J. Bochenek, head of the Health Department's food inspection division.
"The main infestation in the market is in the basement and storage areas; it is something we do want under control," Bochenek said. As far as health problems, "I don't think of that as being the problem. We haven't found problems in the merchant's stalls."
The Thursday night telecast that showed two rats in the market triggered telephone calls to the Health Department yesterday. In response, an inspector visited and issued a new list of violations.
Leonard Jaslow, general manager of Lexington Market, did not return phone calls yesterday. Health officials said an exterminator hired by the market worked there all day.
Lexington Market is particularly vulnerable to infestation because its basement and the sheer size of the building, health officials said. Doors on all sides, particularly those along the building's service drive and delivery area, are often left open.
A review by The Sun of Health Department files on nine food businesses at the market showed that all had been the subject of complaints or citations for pest infestation since 1993.
"Roach found in food," said a complaint last fall against a Chinese restaurant. Health officials also found evidence of mice infestation at the same stall.
Inspectors found a dead roach in plain view in one restaurant's framed license to do business in Maryland. They made the inspection after a customer complained of finding one of the insects in his rice and gravy.
Mouse droppings were found on a deli shelf behind the wrapping paper. Reports of roach, mouse and rat infestation were common in the reports.
When asked about such reports, merchants yesterday seemed unfazed.
"Of course" there are rats, said Renee Brown, 40, who has worked at the Butter Cup cake shop and bakery for 15 years. "The exterminator comes through once a week and goes to each individual stall [spraying and setting out baits for rodents]. This is a market full of food in the middle of downtown. A lot of it can't be helped."
Tony Tamberino, owner of Tony Tamberino meats, has done business in the market since 1973.
"It's cleaner now than it's ever been," said Tamberino, who lives in Essex. "The worst time for rats was about 10 years ago, when the Baltimore metro was being dug out. For three Sundays before Christmas, I had to go down in the basement every week and there were baits all over the place."
Said Tamberino: "With all the food around here, some things are going to slip by, but they try to keep a lid on it. You're not going to get everything.
"Do the police catch every criminal?" he asked. "You're not going catch every rat."
Pub Date: 2/01/97