Howard Co. bean sprout processor closed over unsanitary conditions

Company's sprouts, tofu no longer on market; processing ceases until work in compliance

February 14, 2011|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

A Howard County bean sprout processor has ceased operations after state and federal inspectors reported chronic unsanitary conditions, according to court records.

Last week, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Maryland against Mount Airy-based Vegi-Pak Farm LLC, general manager Brian Lee and President Sun Ja Lee seeking a permanent injunction until the facility can be brought into compliance. A consent decree details a list of required actions, including cleaning the facility, storing seeds safely and treating them to reduce pathogens.

"We're 100 percent complying with their finding and how to resolve any and all issues," Brian Lee said in a telephone interview.

Vegi-Pak had been processing and packaging tofu and soybean and mung bean sprouts distributed to Korean markets in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. According to the complaint, Food and Drug Administration inspectors found equipment coated in food waste and a fly infestation inside the facility in September. In addition, workers were not adequately washing and cleaning the soybeans, and reported they were instructed by the company president to fabricate disinfection records, according to the complaint.

An FDA spokesman would not comment on the pending matter.

Inspectors for Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found similar unsanitary conditions during two inspections in 2008 and one in April. Vegi-Pak had already been closed by the state program, said Alan Taylor, chief of DHMH's office of food protection and consumer health services. The company's products are no longer on the market, Taylor said.

Contaminated raw or lightly cooked bean sprouts have been suspected or confirmed in at least 32 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1996, according to the complaint. Pathogens including listeria monocytogenes, salmonella and E. coli have all been associated with bean sprouts. Officials were not aware of any illnesses connected to products from this business, however.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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