It’ll Be Pizza in Scarborough, which makes pizza dough that is distributed throughout New England, failed to report three complaints from customers who found metal screws in its dough. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Scarborough company that manufactures the pizza dough that is the focus of a razor-blade tampering investigation has revealed that it failed to report three complaints it received from customers who found metal screws in its dough.

It’ll Be Pizza, which made the dough sold at Hannaford in which razor blades were found in August and October, received reports of dough balls containing screws that were sold at three other Hannaford stores in September. But the company did not report those incidents – not to vendors, the police or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency that oversees its manufacturing process – until after Saco police went public this month with news that razor blades had been found in It’ll Be Pizza dough sold at Hannaford stores in Saco and Sanford.

The company revealed the three cases to the Press Herald after the newspaper filed a records request with public health officials under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The company says it withheld the information while struggling to make sense of conflicting customer reports while confirming that the screws found in the dough weren’t used in its dough making machinery. It then hired a private detective to track down a recently fired ex-employee, Nicholas Mitchell, who now sits in jail facing charges in the Saco tampering that involved razor blades.

“In hindsight, IBP appreciates that it could have done better when it comes to more timely reporting of consumer product tampering,” said Tim Bryant, a Portland attorney that It’ll Be Pizza hired after news broke of the blades in dough. “It could have done better. For that, IBP would like to apologize to everyone who was impacted.”

FDA regulations say a food manufacturer must report known cases of product tampering, but the manufacturer said there are no specific requirements for how and when to report it. While the company has a food safety plan, September was the first time IBP had received a complaint about a foreign object in the dough in its 20-year history, Bryant said.

Here’s a timeline of the complaints, according to Bryant:

• Sept. 6: A customer reported finding a screw in pizza dough bought at the Hannaford in Wells.

• Sept. 11: A customer reported finding a screw in pizza dough bought at the Hannaford in North Berwick.

• Sept. 26: A vendor reported finding a screw in pizza dough it bought at a Hannaford in Dover, New Hampshire.

The two customer complaints came to It’ll Be Pizza’s attention through the online customer communication form maintained by Portland Pie Co., the pizzeria chain under whose brand name many of It’ll Be Pizza’s dough balls are sold. The company sells the Portland Pie dough and other unbranded doughs to food suppliers, schools, restaurants and three grocery chains.

The first customer told the company the pizza dough bag showed no signs of tampering, which made IBP initially suspect an in-house mechanical problem. But an in-house inspection of IBPs production line revealed it didn’t use that particular kind of screw on its dough-making machinery, and that all of the screws it did use were exactly where they were supposed to be.

The second customer complained of a different kind of screw found in their dough, also not the kind used in the company’s production line, but reported a rip in the dough bag. That led It’ll Be Pizza’s owners to consider the possibility of post-production tampering, Bryant said. However, when it tried to follow up with the customer to pursue that line of inquiry, their calls were not returned.

It was the third customer complaint, made directly to It’ll Be Pizza from a trusted vendor, that made the dough manufacturer shift its thinking, Bryant said. The vendor found a half-inch metal screw in a dough it had bought from a Hannaford in Dover, New Hampshire, to supplement its usual delivery. That dough bag was ripped, suggesting a retail-level problem.

It was at this point that It’ll Be Pizza’s management began to “connect the dots” between the three screw incidents and suspect the screws might be the result of deliberate tampering instead of a mechanical error, Bryant said. And their production process and the ripped bags cited in two of the three reports led them to believe the tampering was probably happening at the retail level.

The facility includes two magnetized boxes designed to remove metal contaminants larger than a small pearl from dough supplies as they enter the production line and from the finished dough balls exiting the line. If metal is detected, an alarm sounds, the conveyor belt stops and all doughs on the line are thrown out, Bryant said.

Hourly checks of both detectors throughout September production and post-complaint inspections turned up no problems.

After passing through the second metal detector, the dough balls are frozen solid – so hard that it takes a drill to insert a thermometer into the balls to make sure the core temperature is cold enough for transport – before they are carried by conveyor belt into the line’s automated bread bagging machines.

The dough balls are still frozen solid when loaded onto third-party refrigerated trucks that haul the products to their end destination, Bryant said. In most cases, the balls are still frozen solid upon arrival at the school, restaurant or grocery store, making it almost impossible to inconspicuously insert a foreign object into the dough during transit, too.

After the third incident, when a pattern began to emerge and tampering looked likely, Bryant said It’ll Be Pizza’s managers didn’t have to think very hard or long before arriving at a likely suspect – Mitchell, the forklift driver they fired in June for repeated tardiness, whose unemployment claim they successfully opposed and who they claim was targeting them with threatening phone calls.

But they didn’t have any real proof, so at their next team meeting, the managers decided to hire a private investigator to find and look into whether Mitchell could have been responsible for the screw incidents. The investigator had put in a couple days work but couldn’t find him before news broke Oct. 6 of the razor blade incident in Saco, and Mitchell was arrested in New Hampshire on Oct. 11.

Even so, according to Bryant’s timeline, It’ll Be Pizza waited until Oct. 15 before reporting the three screw complaints to Saco police, and until Oct. 16 to report them to the FDA and Hannaford, which by that time was already recalling Portland Pie Co. doughs.

“IBP was juggling a whirlwind of events triggered by mindless criminal acts,” Bryant said. “The company was admittedly slow to grasp that a terminated employee was sabotaging its products in retail locations. … IBP is working closely with our partners and authorities to make sure something like this never happens again.”

According to Bryant, the customer who lodged the first screw complaint told IBP that they got a refund from the Hannaford store that sold the dough, yet Hannaford never shared that complaint with IBP directly. Hannaford didn’t report that complaint to state regulators or police, either, or a complaint about dough with a razor blade in it lodged by a customer in Sanford on Aug. 6.

Hannaford, the state’s largest grocery chain, blamed the Sanford reporting delay on an email glitch, but refused to answer questions posed Monday about the reports of screws found in It’ll Be Pizza dough or say how many doughs sold in any of its stores show signs of tampering. It refers all questions to police and responds with the same one-paragraph reply.

The state agriculture department is investigating why Hannaford waited two months before reporting that customers had found razor blades and small metal shards in fresh pizza doughs sold at its Sanford store, an apparent violation of the section of the Maine Food Code that requires licensed grocers to report imminent health hazards.

No one has been reported injured because of the tampering.

Regulatory oversight of the nation’s food supply chain is divided among a group of state and federal agencies, ranging from federal agriculture and food and drug regulators to the state’s departments of health and agriculture. Sometimes agencies share jurisdiction, while other times one agency writes the rules and another enforces them, when it has the time or funds.

Generally, federal agencies oversee the nation’s food production system, but not its retail sale, according to federal agriculture and food safety officials. FDA does not usually investigate a retailer or manufacturer’s response to the criminal act of tampering at a food retailer, federal officials say.  However, Saco police confirmed last week they are working with FDA on this case.

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