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Safety inspectors found violations against contractor that provided food for National Guard

National Guard soldiers wait near the U.S. Capitol on March 3, 2021.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By MELISSA NANN BURKE | The Detroit News | Published: March 14, 2021

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The food service contractor that prompted complaints for allegedly serving undercooked meals to National Guard troops at the U.S. Capitol has a history of health violations at its restaurant and catering locations in two Maryland counties.

The violations included storing foods at unsafe temperatures, slime in ice machines, an employee not washing their hands and, in 2019, evidence of a mouse problem.

The violations emerged during a Detroit News review of two years' worth of health inspection reports for Sardi's Catering and 10 of its affiliated restaurants.

Many of the most serious health violations were corrected on site after being flagged by a county health inspector, often by disposing of the potentially spoiled food or transferring it to a refrigerator for rapid cooling. There were no reports of the rodent issue recurring.

The review was prompted by 50 reported cases of gastrointestinal illness among National Guard soldiers who have provided security at the U.S. Capitol. Several of those sickened sought treatment at hospitals or military health facilities, but the guard has said no one was admitted to the hospital for treatment.

Dozens of Michigan guard members complained starting in mid-February about the meals they were served, ranging from undercooked meat to poor quality.

Sardi's pointed out a Feb. 23 county inspection of its catering facility in College Park, Md., where no violations were reported.

The company has said it maintains "rigorous" standards for food safety and quality, and that it is in full compliance with all standards and requirements of its National Guard Bureau contract, as well as state and District of Columbia requirements.

A spokeswoman for Sardi's said Friday that, with 16 restaurant locations and a large-scale catering business, the operation generates a high volume of "safe and quality food."

"The number of citations annually from the county represents a very small percentage of the total volume of meals served across the entire operation," spokeswoman Maria Stagliano said.

"Whenever Sardi’s receives a complaint from a catering client, or when they receive any form of health or safety violation for their restaurant locations, the company investigates and takes immediate corrective action."

Sardi's Catering has an $11.4 million contract to provide meals through Monday for National Guard troops in Washington. The company has claimed that none of the 50 reported cases of gastrointestinal illness among soldiers at the Capitol in recent weeks have been linked to it.

Nearly 1,000 members of the Michigan National Guard helped local and federal law enforcement with U.S. Capitol security after the Jan. 6 attack on the building. The Michigan guard's mission ended Friday, and the service members are scheduled to return home this week.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer came to Washington on March 5 and met with troops who told her their meals had improved but not by much. She called the situation "unacceptable."

National Guard officials say the matter was limited to a small number of meals and not systemic. The guard also says it conducted spot inspections at Sardi's kitchens to check for safe and sanitary food preparation and packaging.

Through an open records request, The Detroit News obtained health inspection reports dating to January 2019 for 10 Sardi's restaurant locations in Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland, as well as Sardi's Catering facility in College Park.

In Montgomery County, eight of 22 inspections across four restaurants found "critical" violations, meaning those presenting a risk of food-related illness or injury, according to county inspection data.

Across seven Sardi's locations in Prince George's County, five of 25 inspections since 2019 resulted in "critical" violations. Inspections sharply dropped off last year during the pandemic.

At least three inspections in this period were prompted by complaints from consumers who told the county they'd become sick after eating chicken at a Sardi's restaurant, according to the reports.

Undercooked meat has been served to members of the Michigan National Guard and other troops guarding the U.S. Capitol.

Debra Freeman, chief of Prince George's Food Protection Program, said her division has not received any complaints about Sardi's in relation to its meals for National Guard troops.

"They are generally a good operation," Freeman said. "They don’t give us many problems."

Her counterpart in Montgomery County, Kenny Welch, agreed.

"I’d say they’re fairly responsible," said Welch, environmental health manager for Montgomery County Health and Human Services. "We have our bad apples. I wouldn’t consider them a bad apple."

Many of the critical violations documented at Sardi's locations were for holding foods at unsafe temperatures — for instance, fish, cheese, coleslaw and salads, all measured at room temperature.

Welch said findings of unsafe food holding temperatures were by far the most common type of critical violation reported at all Montgomery County food establishments over the last two years.

Once cooked, food should be kept hot at an internal temperature of 135 degrees or above, and cold foods should be kept at 41 degrees or below, under state and local regulations in Maryland.

The range between those temperatures is referred to as the "danger zone," where bacteria can quickly reproduce.

"The worse part of that zone is 70 to 120 degrees, so if you are holding food at that temperature, it gives bacteria all of the things that it really needs to grow," said Wade Syers, a food safety educator at the Michigan State University Extension in Muskegon.

"Bacteria in that temperature danger zone, when they have food in the right acidity conditions, in the right moisture conditions, they can double every 20 minutes."

Depending on what organisms are at play, people can get very sick from consuming the food that's been left out, Syers said.

In August 2019, an inspector at Sardi's Taphouse in Olney, Md., reported potentially hazardous foods including fish, pulled pork, chicken and cheese stored in a refrigerator at temperatures between 71 and 72 degrees. The food was voluntarily discarded when brought to the attention of staff, according to the inspection report.

The inspector also noted some of the cutting boards and a slicing machine hadn't been cleaned properly with stains and residue built up.

In January 2020, an inspector responding to a report of foodborne illness at Sardi's Pollo a La Brasa in Oxon Hill found a salad-preparation unit with feta cheese measuring close to 50 degrees, which was then discarded. The staff was instructed not to use the unit until it was repaired and reinspected.

At another restaurant in Germantown, an inspector in January 2020 measured rotisserie chicken at 60 degrees and cooked chicken breasts at 79 degrees — both of which were said to be out of refrigeration for less than two hours and placed into a walk-in cooler to chill, according to the report.

In January of this year, an inspector at the same restaurant found two cooler units unplugged with potentially hazardous foods in them at unsafe temperatures. She instructed staff to keep the units plugged in.

A rodent problem was observed in June 2019 at Sardi's Catering in College Park, where an inspector observed mouse droppings in the facility's dry storage room, utility closet and a bathroom.

The inspector also witnessed an employee not washing their hands after handling raw beef. Hand-washing sinks were blocked next to a three-compartment sink and in the produce prep room, according to the report. Five days later, another inspection at the catering site found no evidence of mice.

Sardi's on Friday highlighted a copy of its most recent county inspection for compliance with COVID-19 regulations, which it aced with all employees properly masked.

Sardi's has said that due to COVID-19 restrictions, it's required to pre-package individual meals for the National Guard at its facilities, rather than setting up a kitchen on site. In recent weeks, it provided 5,300 meals three times a day for the troops.

Meals are delivered to the National Guard Armory in bulk, and then allocated to the troops on Capitol Hill about two and a half miles away.

Sardi's time stamps each delivery box with the time the food was packaged and its temperature, with instructions to the guard to discard unused food after four hours, according to the company. The discard time stamp is also marked on each box.

Sardi's Catering says it marks each box of meals for the National Guard with the food temperature at the time of packaging and the time four hours later after which the food should be discarded. One food safety expert said this time should be shortened to two hours.

But MSU food safety expert Syers flagged those four hours as problematic, noting a two-hour guideline from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which says perishable foods including meats, poultry and eggs left at room temperature longer than two hours should be discarded.

"If you have cooked food that's sitting at room temperature at about 70 degrees, after two hours that should be discarded," Syers said. "So if they're just packaging these and then saying you have four hours — I would look into that."

Sardi's said the four-hour discard rule is explicitly listed in its National Guard contract, based on the military's food code, and referred questions about the rule to the guard.

"Sardi’s is meeting 100% of the contractual requirements," Stagliano said.

The Guard did not respond Friday to questions about its four-hour rule.

Guard members do spot-check the temperature of the Sardi's meals upon their delivery to the D.C. armory, according to officials. Samples of those inspection reports from late February show meal temperatures ranging from 115 to 150 degrees.

One report, dated Feb. 20, indicated several soldiers and airmen who ate dinner at the armory (before meals were shipped to Capitol Hill) said the food was "not hot," prompting them to microwave their food after the first bite.

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