The state agriculture department is investigating why Hannaford waited two months before reporting that customers had found razor blades and small metal shards in fresh pizza doughs sold at its Sanford store in August, an apparent violation of the section of the Maine Food Code that requires licensed grocers to report imminent health hazards.

The state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry only learned of the August incident after more blades and metal shards were found in doughs sold at a Saco Hannaford this month, according to Celeste Poulin, director of quality assurance and regulations. The store didn’t report the Saco incident to regulators until Oct. 14, a week after the police went public.

On Wednesday, after a week of federal and state agencies claiming Hannaford’s reporting obligation fell outside their jurisdiction, a state agriculture department supervisor confirmed the agency was investigating.

“The first call should have been to us,” said Poulin on Wednesday. “We should have been notified pretty much immediately, but we were not. It’s something I am going to be addressing with Hannaford’s management. We are investigating the circumstances as we speak … We don’t get a lot of these kind of cases, I get it, but when you do, we’ve got to be your first or second call.”

The state’s biggest grocery chain blamed the August reporting lapse on an email failure, saying the Sanford store reported the incident but its email system prevented that report from being referred up the corporate chain of command. Hannaford said it has fixed the email problem, added additional reporting requirements and apologized for the mistake.

It has refused to answer additional questions about the failure, such as why Sanford employees never followed up on the report after not getting a response for two months or why the reporting system worked in October. It has also refused to say how much dough was returned during its multi-state recall, or how many returned doughs were found to have blades in them.

Instead, Hannaford referred all other questions to the police departments investigating the criminal act.

Carrier

Nicholas Mitchell of Dover, N.N., is accused of putting razor blades in pizza dough sold on Oct. 5 at the Hannaford supermarket in Saco. Dover, N.H., Police Department via Associated Press

Saco police have charged Nicholas Mitchell, 38, with reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon and violating the conditions of his probation for a prior crime, which prohibits him from engaging in new criminal conduct or possessing dangerous weapons, including razor blades. He is being held without bail in York County Jail.

Mitchell is a former forklift driver at It’ll Be Pizza in Scarborough, the maker of the fresh pizza dough balls targeted for blading, which are sold under the brand name Portland Pie Co. Mitchell was fired from that job after repeatedly showing up late to work, court documents show. Company officials say Mitchell had been harassing them ever since he was fired.

Surveillance video from the Saco Hannaford shows a man matching Mitchell’s description handling the bagged fresh dough balls in the deli section and then returning them to the shelves, according to police.

Police have not charged Mitchell in connection with the August incidents. Sanford police, It’ll Be Pizza and the agriculture department all say they remained unaware of the Sanford complaints until Saco police revealed them during its investigation into the Oct. 6 tampering report. Had it been contacted then, It’ll Be Pizza says, it would have brought Mitchell to the attention of police at that time.

No one has been reported injured because of the tampering.

While the food network is complex, every major food retailer has developed a food safety and defense plan intended to identify potential threats to the food supply, train employees how to minimize them and, when they do happen, how to react, said Hilary Thesmar, senior vice president of food safety for Food Marketing Institute, a nationwide food retailer trade group.

Likewise, each state has its own regulatory process outlining how and when food retailers must report suspected tampering, Thesmar said. Police take the lead role in investigating the criminal act itself, but local regulators, retailers and suppliers are supposed to work together to minimize threats to public safety and maintain public confidence in the food supply.

“We don’t want consumers to have to ask is this food safe,” Thesmar said. “The goal of the entire industry, from producer to retailer to regulator, is to have programs in place to prevent harm, and if something does go wrong, have a program in place to act quickly. Because if something harms the industry, leads to a lack of consider confidence, it hurts everybody.”

Regulatory oversight of the nation’s food supply chain is divided among a group of state and federal agencies, ranging from federal agriculture and food and drug regulators to the state’s departments of health and agriculture. Sometimes agencies share jurisdiction, while other times one agency writes the rules and another enforces them, when it has the time or funds.

Generally, federal agencies oversee the nation’s food production system, but not its retail sale, according to federal agriculture and food safety officials. If someone had bladed the doughs at It’ll Be Pizza, a federal investigation would have ensued, Mitchell would have been referred to law enforcement and a federal agency would have reviewed the company’s response to the criminal act.

In the pizza dough case, however, the tampering occurred at a retail food establishment, which is regulated by state authorities. Last week, when the matter first came to light, police led the investigation and focused on the tampering itself, which is against federal criminal law. No one was looking at how Hannaford handled the incident, or if it complied with reporting requirements.

Despite saying last week it had no role to play in the Hannaford tampering case, U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors were in Saco on Wednesday meeting with local police to discuss what had happened, said Saco Deputy Police Chief Corey Huntress. When contacted again, the FDA said it has a policy of not commenting on open investigations.

State regulatory agencies initially struggled to figure out who or what state law or rule details how a retail food establishment is supposed to handle a case of deliberate food adulteration. Both the state Department of Health and Human Services and the agriculture department, which handles restaurant inspections, initially believed the other to have jurisdiction.

But Wednesday, Poulin, the agriculture department supervisor in charge of quality assurance, said the Maine Food Code requires retailers like Hannaford to immediately report suspected tampering to the same inspectors who do retail food establishment inspections and license reviews.

“DACF will be investigating the intentional adulteration incidents at Hannaford,” Poulin said. “The Maine Food Code does allow for enforcement where a licensee fails to report circumstances that may endanger public health to the department. Based on the information gathered, the department will weigh the appropriate next steps.”

The agency anticipates that it will at least require Hannaford to develop internal food tampering controls, Poulin said by email. Those controls, which would have to be reviewed and approved by the department, must include regular training provided to all applicable Hannaford staff, Poulin said.

The federal Food Safety Modernization Act contains reporting requirements for retailers that suspect food tampering, but the agriculture department has not adopted those requirements. The Maine Food Code requires licensees such as Hannaford to discontinue operations and notify regulators if an imminent health hazard may exist that could endanger public health.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.