Chief Investigator Tony Kovaleski's continuing series on a food facility that has allegedly resifted and sold dirty food.
UPDATE: Foods added to the expanded list of recalled items include:
You can download the full list here:
Two former San Francisco Herb & Natural Food Company employees claim that products contaminated by dead mice, rodent feces and urine are regularly resifted and repackaged for sale to unknowing customers. They spoke exclusively to Chief Investigator Tony Kovaleski during a two-month NBC Bay Area investigation.
“The most disgusting thing I have ever seen is mice living inside there, mice reproducing inside there, making babies in there,” one former employee said. “I and a couple of employees actually have seen the newborn babies within the product. What they did was just take the babies out, throw them out, resift the product of course, and then re-bag it and put it back in stock.”
The whistleblower said he quit his job in June partly because the company failed to properly address a massive rodent infestation, and that he turned to NBC Bay Area to expose the secrets inside the walls of the Fremont-based tea, spice and natural foods distributor.
“I can’t bear this anymore,” he said. “Somebody has to stop what they are doing to stop what their process is because this is not right.”
He provided NBC Bay Area with exclusive photos and video from inside the Fremont warehouse located just off Highway 880 next to the former Solyndra plant, which show rodent droppings on the floor and on bags and pallets of product. One photo shows what appears to be a mouse inside of a barrel that holds a food product. Another picture shows a rat inside of a clear plastic bag.
“It’s a rat about one and a half to two feet, long tail, dead, that was on the product,” another former employee said. “It was actually halfway in the bag. There was a hole there and when we were cleaning up, we’ve seen it in there. It’s dead.”
The first source also provided the Investigative Unit with two milling requisitions from January and February 2011 with orders to “clean mouse droppings.”
The second whistleblower said that the sales number on the bottom of the documents means that the products were meant for a customer.
“After they sift out the droppings they package it up and ship it out,” he said.
He also said that the initials “FN” on the upper left-hand corner of the documents mean that a supervisor gave the orders to sift out the rodent contamination from the products and repackage and resell it.
When asked if the owners were aware that employees were instructed to sift out mice feces and rodent bodies from the product and resell it, the former employee responded: “At times, they were the ones that gave the orders.”
Owners Barry and Kristi Meltzer declined interview requests when Kovaleski visited the Fremont warehouse. Through their attorney, the couple said that they have no comment.
The Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Public Health temporarily shut down the company shortly after learning about a two-month NBC Bay Area investigation into conditions inside the facility. On July 11 the government placed an embargo on the company, preventing the sale and distribution of more than a million pounds of food product from the 150,000-square-foot warehouse. A notice on the company’s website says that it is “temporarily not accepting new orders.”
Patrick Kennelly, chief of the Food Safety Section of the California Department of Public Health, viewed the photos given to the Investigative Unit by the former employees.
“I think the pictures speak a thousand words,” Kennelly said. “You can clearly look at the pictures and see there is a significant rodent problem at the facility.”
He said government inspectors also found evidence of “dead rodent bodies, live bodies, fecal and urine contamination on products,” that the contamination is “in all corners of the warehouse,” and that there is still a “very active infestation in the facility.”
He said the state is investigating whether the company resifts contaminated food products and sells it to the public.
“That raises the level of concern to a whole new level,” Kennelly said. “You can’t effectively re-condition a product that has been exposed to rodent excrete and rodent urine, especially the types of product that this firm is selling.”
The company recalled 16 products after the Investigative Unit uncovered the filthy conditions inside the facility. The recalled products range from carob powder and fennel seeds to green tea and hops flower to spearmint and thyme leaves. In a recall notice, the company urged customers who have bought the recalled products to destroy them. Look in the document bin on this page for a complete list of all recalled products.
Many of the recalled products are not purchased directly by consumers. Instead, they are mostly used by food manufactures in the production of baked goods, teas and other items for sale in stores. The company sells to local bakeries, large businesses across the nation and to customers throughout the country on its internet sales site. A public relations firm recently hired to field media inquiries into the recall said that San Francisco Herb and Natural Food Company is privately notifying customers who have purchased recalled products. No illnesses have been reported in relation to the contaminated products, according to the company.
"Until they have successfully and completely eradicated the pest problem we're not going to begin the process to get them back in operation,” Kennelly said.
The state health department urges anyone with concerns about a dirty food facility to call the Food and Drug Branch complaint hotline at 1-800-495-3232.
If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 888-996-8477.