Albertsons cleans warehouse after Portland tv station uncovers mold

Albertsons cleans warehouse after Portland tv station uncovers mold »Play Video
An anonymous Albertsons' employee supplied the On Your Side Investigators with photos of the mold growing inside the Albertsons Portland Distribution Center in Northeast Portland. The On Your Side Investigators turned the pictures over to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which immediately inspected the distribution center.

PORTLAND, Ore. --  Albertsons is now cleaning its Portland distribution center after the On Your Side Investigators uncovered mold growing on shelves where food is stored and later supplied to 104 stores.

For months, hairy, white patches of mold grew on racks where packaged meat and dairy products were refrigerated inside the Albertsons Portland Distribution Center - a massive 800,000 square foot facility - located in Northeast Portland. KATU uncovered the mold growth about two weeks ago after receiving an anonymous tip from an Albertsons' employee, who shared pictures of the mold.

The On Your Side Investigators then turned those pictures over to the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), the agency responsible for inspecting food warehouses. That prompted an immediate state inspection of the distribution center.

That ODA inspection report, from Feb. 21, 2014 states, "Metal storage racks used to store packaged food products have a white, hairy, mold like growth growing on them. Specifically racks ... in the refrigerated meat storage room ..." and "...refrigerated dairy room."

According to inspectors, no food was contaminated.

"They were within the law - the food safety law - since no food in the warehouse was contaminated by the mold," said Vance Bybee, Director of Food Safety and Animal Health at the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Bybee said ODA required Albertsons to clean up the moldy mess since "non-food-contact surfaces of equipment used in the operation of food plants should be cleaned as frequently as necessary to protect against food contamination."

The report stated that warehouse management was aware of the problem and had already begun a "cleaning process". The ODA instructed Albertsons to clean up the mold by March 14.

In an email statement to KATU Monday, Albertsons spokesman Dennis McCoy said "...a non-critical violation does not directly relate to a foodborne illness risk and as such is a relatively minor violation. No food was contaminated and there was no risk to the foods that we sell nor to our associates at the warehouse."

McCoy added that all of the "racking in the perishable departments" have been cleaned as of this week and said they planned to invite ODA back to re-inspect the distribution center this week.

Albertsons would not let KATU inside the distribution center to confirm the area was clean.

Furthermore, the tipster said Albertsons was aware of the mold problem nearly nine months ago. 

To evaluate that claim, the On Your Side Investigators contacted a microbiologist, Dr. Fred Colley at Pixis Labs located in Northeast Portland.

"Mold is not really fast growing but it never stops," Colley said.
 
After analyzing a picture of the mold from inside the Albertsons distribution center, Colley described the amount of mold as "extensive" and said it would have likely taken weeks to get to that point.

So if Albertsons knew about the mold problem weeks or months ago, why didn't they clean it up earlier?

Albertsons refused to speak on camera for this story but, after several email exchanges, McCoy responded Monday with a statement regarding a timeline for when he says Albertsons first discovered the mold.

In the email statement, McCoy explained that Albertsons has occasionally dealt with a "non-toxic mold that grows from a naturally occurring spore that is present on produce." He said the high humidity environment causes it to grow. 

McCoy explained, "Last summer, we noticed that mold had started to grow and spread on some of the racking. At this point, we determined that we would need to remove all pallets from the racks and begin an extensive cleaning program."

Despite that "extensive cleaning program", McCoy's very next sentence went on to say that Albertsons was not aware of the mold issue in the meat and dairy sections of the warehouse until last month.

"Distribution Center leadership only became aware of the issue reported in the three pallet slot locations discovered by the Oregon Department of Agriculture on Friday, February 21," McCoy said in the email.  "Had we been aware of the extent of the growth in these areas, we would have addressed them immediately."

"We don't have the staff and resources necessary to inspect warehouses"

State inspectors said they rely on tips - like the one from KATU - and other complaints to better ensure that food is safe for the public.

"We take those calls seriously and every time we receive one, we send an inspector out to check the circumstance to make sure it doesn't go beyond gross to something that could be a food safety problem," Bybee said.

The On Your Side Investigators discovered the last time ODA inspected the Albertsons distribution center in Northeast Portland was September 2012.
 
Why?

"Because we don't have the staff and resources necessary to inspect warehouses with any more frequency," Bybee said.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture inspects grocery stores, food processors, dairy farms, bakeries, seafood handlers, and food storage warehouses; however, Oregon has no law that specifies how often the ODA has to inspect any of these facilities.

KATU also learned that they're the only agency tasked with inspecting those places; health inspectors don't drop by warehouses.

Even without a law, Bybee said ODA generally inspects processing plants and grocery stores at least once a year and they try to get to warehouses at least once every two years.

However, if the mold isn't contaminating the food, and finding mold in a warehouse is lower on the priority list for ODA because it's not considered as risky, what's to say there aren't warehouses all over the state of Oregon that have mold?

"There's nothing to say that. That may be a true statement," Bybee said.

Mold's Impacts on Employees?

The original tipster also expressed concerns about the effects mold could have on the health of the Albertsons' employees at the warehouse. The Department of Agriculture did not test the mold but McCoy said Albertsons tested the mold and said it was non-toxic.

The On Your Side Investigators also contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) - the state agency that looks into employee safety - to alert them to the situation.

Albertsons statements to the On Your Side Investigators:

(March 3, 2014)

Albertsons Portland Distribution Center is an 800,000 square foot facility. There are over 75,000 pallet slot locations within the racking where product is stored.  Occasionally, we have experienced a non-toxic mold that grows from a naturally occurring spore that is present on produce, and the high humidity environment causes it to recur.  We have taken action to correct this issue each time it has been discovered.

Last summer, we noticed that mold had started to grow and spread on some of the racking. At this point, we determined that we would need to remove all pallets from the racks and begin an extensive cleaning program.

Distribution Center leadership only became aware of the issue reported in the three pallet slot locations discovered by the Oregon Department of Agriculture on Friday, February 21.  Had we been aware of the extent of the growth in these areas, we would have addressed them immediately.

Even though the Department of Agriculture classified it as a 'non-critical food violation' and permitted us until 3/14/14 to rectify the issue, we have zero tolerance for regulatory violations, and we took action to remedy the issue as soon as we discovered it.  All of our racking in the perishable departments has been cleaned and we will invite the Department of Agriculture to re-inspect our facility this week.

As previously stated, a non-critical violation does not directly relate to a foodborne illness risk and as such is a relatively minor violation.  No food was contaminated and there was no risk to the foods that we sell nor to our associates at the warehouse.

Thank you!

Dennis McCoy

(February 27, 2014)

“We take the safety and sanitation of our warehouses and stores very seriously. In this instance, the substance that was on the metal racks at our Portland distribution center was not in direct contact with any food, which is why the Oregon Department of Agriculture classified it as a ‘non-critical food violation’ and permitted us until 3/14/14 to rectify the issue, a deadline that we will meet. A non-critical violation does not directly relate to a foodborne illness risk and as such is a relatively minor violation. No food was contaminated and there was no risk to the foods that we sell nor to our associates at the warehouse.

That said, we have zero tolerance for regulatory violations, and we took action to remedy the issue as soon we discovered it. We sent a sample of the substance out to a third party laboratory for identification, and the source has been identified as a non-toxic mold that grows from a naturally occurring spore that is present on produce, and the high humidity environment causes it to recur. We have reviewed the safety and sanitation procedures with the warehouse leadership, all non-contact food surfaces will be cleaned and disinfected in a manner consistent with best industry practices, and all associates will be given additional safety and sanitation training.”

Thank you!

Dennis McCoy