KENAI, AK — Above the popular IGA Country Foods store here is a wholesale produce business that most first-floor grocery shoppers never even notice. Go through the swinging black doors by the milk, however, and up the stairs, and you will find CFG of Alaska, a broadline foodservice distribution company serving all of South Central Alaska with warehouse facilities in Anchorage, Fairbanks and here in Kenai.

Also known as Country Foods Wholesale, its a business spun out of the 34-year-old grocery store in 1986 when it began marketing produce to local restaurants and businesses around town. Today, its far-flung territory stretches all the way to a state prison in isolated Nome, AK, more than 540 miles away from the IGA store.

Up another set of stairs, the second office on the left belongs to CFG’s chief operating officer, Gary Stroh. In April, Stroh found himself at the center of the state of Alaska’s investigation into just how, during the first few days of April, eight state inmates got sick with E. coli O157: H7 from consuming romaine lettuce supplied by Country Foods and served to prisoners at Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correctional Center (AMCC).

AMCC is small for a prison, with capacity for just 128 inmates. Alaska has 13 prisons with a combined capacity of just less than 5,000.

CFG supplies the Nome prison with fresh produce and that’s why the Food & Sanitation Program for the state’s Division of Environmental Health, part of the Department of Environmental Conservation, went first to Stroh for answers during the outbreak investigation.

Alaska’s experience with contaminated romaine lettuce is but one chapter in this year’s massive multistate E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened 210 people in 36 states, including 96 people who had to be admitted to hospitals. Five outbreak victims died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The upper floors of the IGA Country Foods grocery store in Kenai, AK, are home to Country Foods Wholesale and the corporate offices for the family owned businesses.

But, Alaska’s chapter is one where a recently completed state outbreak investigation report shows how traceback work never seems to be easy when fresh produce is involved. It also shines light on how the produce industry really works.

The illness onset dates for the eight Anvil Mountain inmates were between April 5 and 15. Alaska health officials visited the prison on Saturday, April 14, to begin their investigation. Two recent deliveries with purchase orders of romaine lettuce from Country Foods led the state investigators to Stroh, who gave them their first lesson in the reality of the produce business.

Stroh “clarified” for the officials that Country Foods is just the broker between Seattle-based Charlie’s Produce and the Anvil Mountain prison.

“He also clarified that AMCC receives their shipment from Charlie’s Produce by way of the Jail Anchorage Chill, C/O Alaska Logistics, located at 9401 King St., Anchorage, AK 99515,” says the state’s traceback report.

Alaska Logistics ships all kinds of goods by air and sea to Nome and its 3,600 residents who are not reachable by road.

The CDC first announced the outbreak on April 10. By April 13 CDC and FDA were warning against romaine from the Yuma, AZ, area. On April 18 the CDC reported 53 people confirmed infected in 16 states were linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma growing area. But there were no recalls for any specific growers or brands.

Three days before Alaska went public on April 19 about its cases at the Nome prison, Stroh provided state officials with copies of statements Rocky Crewse from Charlie’s Produce had passed along to Country Foods from leading produce industry companies including Taylor Farms, Bonduelle, and Fresh Express.

“There has been no recall only an alert,” Crewse wrote. In the email to Stroh, he said removal of romaine from the market was only a “precaution” being taken by some. “There is no firm confirmation that this is a needed action at this time,” Crewse wrote.

On the same day, Alaska demanded Stroh provide all the shipping and receiving invoices to correspond with the purchase orders from the prison.

The next day, Stroh did respond, providing copies of Anvil Mountain’s orders with Country Foods for deliveries to the prison on March 14 and 28 and April 11. He also provided copies of invoices from Charlies Produce for shipments to the Jail Anchorage Chill for March 7, March 14, March 21, and April 4.

Crewse confirmed on April 17 that Charlie’s Produce invoices contained a “UAZ” code, indicating Arizona produced the romaine lettuce.

Anvil Mountain’s March 16 invoice “FS 47-18” for 10 cases of 24-count romaine head lettuce corresponded with the March 14 shipment from Charlie’s Produce to “Jail Anchorage Chill.

However, the traceback then took a wrong turn. Purchase orders that Crewse provided turned out to be incorrect.

Michael Ruff, food safety director for Charlie’s Produce, was first brought in to confirm the romaine shipments came from Arizona. He then discovered the purchase orders did not match the invoice dates from Country Foods.

The state investigators learned there were yet others involved. Monterey, CA-based  Proact Inc. (formerly known as the “Produce Regional Operators Advancing Cooperative Trade”) was the broker between Charlie’s Produce-Seattle and Santa Maria, CA-based Bonipak. The suspect romaine lettuce came from Bonipak’s warehouse in Yuma, AZ.

Alaska managed to line up everything up with help from Bonipak’s Don Klusendorf and Jeff Saleen, respectively, vice president of sales and food safety director.

There was, of course, a grower involved. “Romaine lettuce for all shipments came from Harrison Farms,” says Alaska’s traceback report. Explicitly, the report ties specific shipments for Harrison from Antelope Ranch plots 14 and 34.

The first home of the newly harvested romaine was a Bonipak warehouse. After that, it was all in the hands of those produce brokers.

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