July 22, 2013

New paint rainbow


When my wife Brooke is feeling down she looks for rainbows and they make her feel better. I love that. This little rainbow came in a text from Vincenzo today. We’re going to color-code our Kitchen facility to distinguish between areas meant for different activities. Red for dirty dishes, green for clean dishes, blue for receiving, grey for food production. I’m thinking it would be cool to make up a new batch of hats/ T-shirts to match jobs to areas.

This is one of many steps we’re taking. I’m determined to make Clover the example of food safety best practices. I want our state inspectors to brag about us, to talk to others about the amazing things we do. We’re looking to be a model for others. We’re doing this because none of us want even a small outside chance of this ever happening again. We want you to trust us, and our operation, and trust that you can eat our food without any fear of illness. The first comment on this website in response to the first post I put up about this incident talked about trust, and how we’d earned theirs over the years. And really it’s why this is such a serious incident for us, we feel we betrayed the trust of some of you. We didn’t intend to. We didn’t expect to. But it happened none-the-less.

We’re not going to know for sure what led to these illnesses. All of our food and environmental samples have come back clean. It’s really frustrating for me. I wish I had something to blame. But we don’t. So the best thing we can do is respond as conservatively as possible.

Exposures appear to have been bunched around a 3-day period, which points to a potential batch of food or shipment. From what we know the contamination could have been introduced one of 4 ways:

(1) It was present in our tahini, which we use for our tahini sauce and hummus, neither of which is heated before serving. We feel this is UNLIKELY because, although there was a recent tahini recall, our tahini is made locally, ground after we order it, at a facility we have toured and trust, and pasteurized.

(2) It was present on some of our produce (lemons, tomatoes, cucumbers). We think this is UNLIKELY because we use a pretty serious piece of equipment called a PowerSoak washer to wash all of our vegetables. I invested in this $15,000 piece of equipment specifically because I knew we were going to use a ton of produce and I wanted to make sure it was all very very clean. It’s possible we didn’t wash thoroughly enough, but we were following FDA guidelines for food safety. There is no indication of a breakdown here.

(3) It was introduced by one of our employees to our food. We think this is UNLIKELY because our food handlers follow safe practices. They wash their hands after breaks/ eating/ bathroom/ between tasks/ when changing gloves. Our hummus, cucumber tomato salad, and tahini (the items we’re concerned about here) are made by our most experienced staff, in the middle of the day, in a busy open kitchen. It would be hard to imagine a sanitation system breaking down. It would be so visible. I don’t have any reason to think we had any recent breakdowns in sanitation.

(4) It was present on our bread, invisible to our inspection, and multiplied in the heat (it was hot those days). As I mentioned, we don’t have any way to know where this came from. But I did learn over the weekend that our baker moved facilities days before the outbreak. I was familiar with the facility they moved to because I’d toured it when the former owner was trying to sell me baking equipment. I didn’t buy because I’d learned that his equipment had been under stagnant sewer water for days after the hurricanes last fall. He’d told me another baker had bought his equipment and facility. I didn’t know that other buyer was our baker until we started investigating all of this. And bread is one of the only items that we don’t taste test, we don’t cook, we don’t wash. We sell it as is, assuming it’s safe.

As I said, we can’t know for certain where this came from, but those appear to be the most likely avenues, consistent with the cases we’ve learned about. So even if we don’t know which of these avenues to blame, we can take actions to protect you all in the future. We’re going to gain your trust by the things we do today and tomorrow, not by explaining what happened and how. These are some of the steps we’re taking:

(a) We’ve tested our tahini to ensure it is safe (it is), and followed up on our manufacturer’s licenses, etc. (which the state assures us our clean).

(b) We’re going to start using a sanitizing solution as an extra measure of security for the produce washer. We’re also putting in place better documentation of produce washing so that we can better manage this critical process of our operation.

(c) Our employees are all being screened. Nobody will return to work until cleared. We’re returning to all of our sanitation and illness training and doing our best to improve both.

(d) We’re not buying bread from this supplier ever again. Thankfully we’d already started the process of making our own bread. We received our new special oven from Israel right around the same time as this outbreak, and have begun the process of installing it. In the meantime we’re buying from a local baker that is under the jurisdiction of MA inspectors. After going through this process the state inspectors have gained a great deal of our trust, and I feel better buying from a supplier they oversee.

And one of the most exciting things is that we’re building ground up a set of powerful and detailed operating procedures for the company. I’m going to share these as they develop over the coming days. I think these could become a template for other small businesses.

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