License approved, Berger factory to reopen; only non-critical violations found

The Baltimore City Health Department approved a new license for the Berger cookie factory Wednesday morning, and the coveted cookies--which had been going for $25 a box on eBay during the shutdown--should return to store shelves soon. The license was picked up this afternoon.As part of an inspec­tion for the Berger cookie fac­tory to obtain proper licens­ing, the city initially found 20 non-critical violations, all but two of which had been fixed by the time of a follow-up progress check two weeks later, health officials say.Among the violations, the health department discovered the factory needed to "clean and sanitize [the] interior and exterior of all refrigerators and walk in freezer units," "eliminate all peeling/chipping paint on walls, floors, and ceiling in entire warehouse," "provide commercial NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) rated hand sinks with hot and cold running water inside prep room area," and that employees must "desist from smoking cigarettes inside [the] bathroom and baking room."The full list of 20 violations from the initial inspection on Feb. 1 includes:1.  Clean and sanitize interior and exterior of all refrigerators and walk in freezer units.2.  Repair leaking condensate plumbing inside reach-in refrigerator.3.  Provide thermometers inside all refrigerators.4.  Repair/Replace all out of order light bulbs in entire warehouse.5.  Provide light shields on all bulbs in prep room.6.  Provide commercial NSF rated hand sinks with hot and cold running water inside prep room area.7.  Eliminate all peeling/chipping paint on walls floors and ceiling in entire warehouse.8.  Repair/ replace broken   pockmarked floor in food prep area and where needed.9.  Repair/ replace out of order exhaust ventilation systems in all bathrooms.10. Provide soap and paper towel dispensers in all bathrooms.11. Repair/ replace broken female bathroom door.12.  Employees must desist from smoking cigarettes inside bathroom and baking room.13.  Elevate all items at least 6-8 inches above the floor.14.  Provide a designated employee space for personal clothing and appliances.15.  Provide a closet space for chemicals and cleaning compounds.16.  Repair/ replace broken missing and stains ceiling tiles in entire premise.17.  Provide a mop sink with hot and cold running water through a mixing faucet for gray water disposal only.18. Seal all holes and cracks on floors, walls and ceilings in entire premises.19.  Remove all unused items, broken appliances and trash in storage rooms from the premises.20.  Clean and sanitize all food and non-food contact surfaces in entire premise.By the time of a second inspection on Feb. 14, the bakery had only failed to address the mop sink and place employee hand washing signs in bathrooms.Mary Beth Haller, Assistant Commissioner of Environmental Health at the Baltimore City Health Department, said the number of violations is "not particularly high" and the types of violations are "not unusual by any stretch.""It's not the kind of thing that would typically cause a restaurant or facility to close. If they were found, the owner would be given an opportunity to correct [them]; they're often things that can be fixed on-site right while the inspector is standing there," she said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. "They're the kind of things that wouldn't really pose any kind of an immediate threat to health and safety."In a phone interview, Anthony T. Bartlett, an attorney serving as spokesman for the DeBaufre family, which has owned the bakery for several decades, noted he has family involved in commercial restaurant maintenance and echoed the sentiments of Haller, saying: "It's not unusual for a health department inspection to reveal a number of non-critical items, that does happen frequently. It's not uncommon at all. I have the list, too. Just as the city said, none of them were critical and they were relatively easily remedied."It remains unclear if these same violations, or worse, will eventually be revealed as part of an ongoing investigation by the Food an Drug Administration, first reported by City Paper Monday. (Although FDA official George Strait twice confirmed that a report citing violations would be issued, he now says it has not yet been determined if it will.)Bartlett says Berger has not been informed of any such violations from the FDA's most recent visit to the facility."As far as any pending or ongoing issues with the latest federal inspection, I have made contact with them. I'm just waiting to hear back from them if there's anything they need us to address," he says. "But there's been nothing to indicate that there is any food safety concerns at all."Even if the FDA were to find violations more egregious than those discovered by the city, the municipal department does not act on anything it does not observe in its own inspection. The federal and city agencies conduct separate inspections and do not cross communicate. It is not yet known which inspection came first."[The FDA] have their own inspections and they conduct routine inspections of processing plants and facilities," says Haller. "If they find anything that's of concern, they have their own enforcement processes and they follow up on whatever they might find."After only recently discovering the Berger factory was operating without a city license, the Health Department could not find a record of any prior inspections.That doesn't mean the facility has operated for years unchecked, says Tiffany Thomas Smith, public information officer for the Health Department."There are layers and multiple eyes on a facility of that size," she says. "Because we have not been able to locate a record, that's not to say that others wouldn't have a much deeper record on them."Since the bakery has had a federal license in order to sell across state lines for a number of years, they have been subject to regular FDA inspections, and Bartlett says his clients have a history of being in good standing with the feds."We have always cooperated and had a good relationship with the FDA, through a number of regularly scheduled, periodic inspections, and if there's anything that they'd like us to address, we're happy and comfortable addressing those issues," he says."We just want to return to business, be able to get everything going, and to serve our customers," says Bartlett.Now that the license is approved, the bakery falls under the city's classification of a "moderate risk facility," which requires an inspection every six months.

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