Did kosher certifiers know about failed inspections? Popular challah maker says it ‘adheres to highest standards.’
Zomick’s Bakery of Inwood, L.I., whose challahs and cakes are a staple in Jewish homes from Canarsie to California, insisted this week that its products are of the highest quality and that state food code violations for vermin infestation were problems of the past.
“While we may have had a few isolated incidents years ago, the bakery adheres to the highest standards of safety and has passed all recent inspections,” it said in a statement.
But a review of inspections conducted by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets found that since the company opened its Inwood plant at 85 Inip Drive in 2005, it has failed nearly 60 percent of inspections because of vermin infestation: mice, cockroaches, rats and live birds. The inspections were first reported by FiveTownsPatch.com.
OK Kosher Certification in Brooklyn and the Vaad Hakashrus of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway both certify Zomick’s products as kosher. On Monday, Rabbi Chaim Fogelman of OK Kosher did not reply to a phone call and e-mail seeking comment. And Rabbi Yosef Eisen of the Vaad did not to respond to six phone calls to his office.
Rabbi Hershel Billet, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Woodmere, L.I., said in an e-mail that he had just learned of the failed inspections.
“I do not know if it is true,” he wrote. “But we are in the process of investigating what the Vaad knows.”
Rabbi Kenneth Hain, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, L.I., said the Orthodox rabbis in the Five Towns want to learn whether the Vaad knew of these inspections, because the Vaad is “responsible to the rabbis, who are in turn responsible to the community.”
“The Vaad is a broad communal organization and this is something that, when I read about it, I was appalled and definitely want some answers,” he said.
Among the answers Rabbi Hain said he is seeking is: “What is the industry standard” for vermin problems, and why the media was disclosing the violations rather than the agency that conducted the inspections.
Another question might be how state health standards and kosher supervision standards compare.
A spokesman for the state said in an e-mail that food establishments are “required by law to post the dates and results of their most recent inspection conspicuously at each public entrance to make sure the public is aware. According to our inspection reports, they are complying with this provision of Agriculture and Markets law.”
He noted: “By practice, our Food and Safety division does not share inspection records with third parties.”
Asked why the facility passed an inspection when dead vermin were present but failed when live vermin were present, he said that in order to fail “the deficiency must be categorized as a critical deficiency, which means ‘likely to contribute to contamination.’ Current insect and rodent activity in food areas usually meets that definition.”
During an inspection on May 18, 2006, for example, an inspector reported seeing two or three “live birds” fly through an open window and into the “processing area … and to fly over the dough preparation area.”
Zomick’s maintained in an e-mail interview that there “was never any finding of infestation in any product. Thus, there was no food safety or kashrus issue.”
It said when asked about one inspection last October that infestation was found in goods that had come “onto [the] loading dock from supplier. Never reached production area. Had just come in, was destroyed and would have been destroyed as employee would have observed them prior to bringing them into area.”
The October inspection also found five live cockroaches in the crevices of wheels on one worktable in the section of the baking area where knishes are made. Zomick’s said the worktable was “one out of dozens” and that the vermin were in a “crevice, never on surface and all products were tested.” Regarding other cockroaches spotted on two other worktables in the scraping area, Zomick’s said they too were in crevices and “no food is even involved here.”
Zomick’s insisted that beetle contamination found on a bag of cornmeal was from an “outside source” and that such bags are “usually inspected before being brought in and were destroyed and always would be destroyed.”
The state spokesman said that for the state to close a facility and remove its license to operate, the facility must fail “four or more consecutive inspections. This establishment has previously failed a number of inspections, but not four or more consecutively.”
In fact, Zomick’s failed its first two inspections, passed the third and failed the next three before passing the following one.
The spokesman said inspections are not pre-announced but that the department’s practice is “to revisit facilities with histories of recurring food safety violations within six months.” Thus, the next inspection is expected by August.
Rabbi Luzer Weiss, director of the Kosher Unit within the state’s Division of Food Safety, said his inspectors used to visit kosher facilities three times a year but that in recent years those visits have decreased to once a year. Their job is to ensure that the kosher products used are registered and that disclosure forms are posted.
Rabbi Weiss said his inspectors found no problems with Zomick’s, but quickly added: “We didn’t look under shelves, go around with flashlights in the basement and put our hands under the counter. Had we found problems with food safety, we would have directed it to Food Safety” for a follow-up.
Zomick’s pointed out that the supermarkets to which it sells its products “do random testing when the products are in inventory. Some have in-house capacity. Others have outside sources. Zomick’s randomly opens every batch to test for quality control. This is an assigned function to an employee dedicated to Quality Control. In addition, they are also tested in our in-house lab.”
Although the company said it “has passed all recent inspections,” it actually failed two of the last three inspections.
Zomick’s said its “procedures for maintaining high sanitary standards were further reinforced in recent months” when in June, 2012, “we voluntarily brought in inspectors from the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), a not-for-profit accredited third-party certification agency.” It said the foundation’s review of Zomick’s “procedures to safeguard public health and safety passed with flying colors.”
A spokeswoman for NSF said facility audits are “considered confidential” and that she was unable to provide any information about it.
But just one month later, on July 10, state inspectors seized “insect-infested flour in [the] bakery prep area.”
Inspectors returned Oct. 4 and again seized insect-infested corn flour, but this time it was in the storage area.
The most recent inspection was conducted Feb. 28, and the plant passed, despite the presence of 11 to 20 dead cockroaches and insects.
“The fact that they were dead was an indication of the success of our program to eradicate the infestation,” Zomick’s said. “The bakery is now completely clean.”
Asked what should be done with challahs, cakes and other Zomick’s products consumers have in their freezers that were bought last fall, when the plant in October failed the state inspection, Zomick’s replied:
“Eat them and enjoy them. All products were tested and are completely safe to eat. They are periodically tested by some of the chains that distribute the product.”
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