Clover Food Lab, a popular group of restaurants and food trucks in the Boston area that sells locally sourced vegetarian food, had a “really pitiful” food safety program leading up to a local Salmonella outbreak tied to the company, according a leading food safety and restaurant inspection expert. After the Boston Globe reported that the restaurant group was shuttered after being linked to a 12-person Salmonella outbreak and posted the restaurants’ health inspection report online, Food Safety News asked Roy Costa, a veteran food safety trainer and founder of Environ Health Associates consulting firm, to evaluate the report. Costa said Clover appeared to have a “really pitiful” or nonexistent food safety program in place. “It was a shocking operation,” Costa said. “They don’t have a food safety program. Let’s put it that way. They were operating by the seat of their pants.” Clover underwent an inspection on July 12, according to the five-page inspection report, in response to a foodborne illness complaint. Inspectors cited the restaurant for having spoiled cauliflower on hand,  for not having “necessary supervision of operation” related to food safety, and for keeping wild rice salad, hummus, pickled onions, boiled eggs and caramelized onions at temperatures between 49 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit — well above the 41 degree threshold that’s considered ideal for hampering the growth of bacteria. The city also docked the company for having open whoopie pies within customer reach (instead of being behind a sneeze guard) and for having open food in a prep sink where it could have been “subject to splash from the hand wash sink.” The report asked the restaurant to “eradicate drain flies,” deal with water on floors and keep a clean walk-in fridge floor, and listed several other violations. “This facility is closed, the food trucks are out of service; no food production at this facility for any retail affiliate or food trucks until further inspection and approved by City of Cambridge Inspection Service [Department],” reads the report. “No food prep, no food receiving, no cooking of any food or beverage items, no CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] pickups, until all violations are corrected and the ISD [Inspection Service Department]  approves to reopen.” In case the city wasn’t getting the point across, the report adds: “NO FOOD IN OR OUT.” Costa said Clover is “unfortunately” an entirely preventable but predictable case because they had likely expanded quickly. He said that oftentimes food companies or restaurants that scale up can be victims of their own success if they don’t properly manage their operations and keep food safety front and center. “You have to be prepared for that,” Costa said, of restaurants that get into high production. “It totally got away from them.” The Globe reported that Ayr Muir, Clover’s founder and CEO, is being praised for actively communicating with customers via the company’s blog:

On Clover’s website, Muir, an MIT and Harvard alumnus, promotes his company’s “radically different” way of operating without using preservatives or flavor enhancers, while relying on locally grown, mostly organic ingredients. Those qualities and his transparency in reporting the outbreak on his website appear to have cemented Muir’s bond with his customers, judging by the supportive and forgiving comments on Clover’s website; many promised to keep eating there, while others praised Muir for his honesty.

On Monday, Muir highlighted the effort the company is making to respond to the city’s concerns and prevent any food safety issues in the future in a post on the company’s blog. “Why is that walk-in empty? We threw everything out,” he wrote. “Anything that could have possibly been contaminated. All surfaces sanitized multiple times. Environmental testing, all clean. All new food. All employees screened. New food safety procedures throughout entire company. Why? We want to have absolutely no doubt that our food is going to be delicious and safe.” The post said Clover intends to reopen all restaurants this Wednesday and will be giving out free French fries to celebrate, but noted some of the food trucks may take more time to come back online: “we’re still waiting for all the screening results of employees.” Photo courtesy of flickr Creative Commons.