Did the State Department of Public Health Cook Up a Farmers Market Soup Controversy?
Did the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) cook up a soup controversy this week, when it warned consumers not to eat any soups sold at Los Angeles farmers markets from two different (and unrelated) companies? The health department says the soups, from One Gun Ranch and Organic Soup Kitchen, may contain the toxin Clostridium botulinum, which, if ingested, could lead to serious illness and even death.
There's just one problem --- no botulism has been found in any soups of One Gun Ranch or Organic Soup Kitchen. In fact, the soups have not even been tested for botulism, according to an email Squid Ink received from CDPH yesterday, stating: "CDPH did not conduct laboratory analysis on the soups."
The companies targeted by CDPH are reeling from the state's actions against their products.
"We have fed over 50,000 people in three years without incident," says Anthony Carroccio, founder and director of the Organic Soup Kitchen, which feeds homeless and low-income people in Santa Barbara. The nonprofit organization has many programs to help at-risk individuals, including feeding pregnant women and house-bound senior citizens. Proceeds from the soups, which were sold at the Calabasas and Studio City farmers markets, were used to help finance such programs.
The CDPH says no illnesses have been linked to the soups, and its statement did not indicate what triggered the state agency's sudden concern over the safety of the soups. In response to questions emailed by Squid Ink, CDPH wrote that the soups manufactured by One Gun Ranch and Organic Soup Kitchen may have the "potential" for the formation of botulism "if the processes were not sufficient to deactivate" the toxin. CDPH did not elaborate on what processes it was concerned about, but the agency said that neither company had been evaluated by the University of California Laboratory for Research in Food Preservation. It appears the state wants the companies to obtain cannery licenses.
Carroccio told us that there is nothing wrong with his soups and said that the company passed its most recent county health department inspection two weeks ago. He said the company has never had a recall of any of its products: "We do everything by the letter of the law."
Asked why the state health department is suddenly taking this action against the Organic Soup Kitchen, Carroccio responded: "That's what I wish somebody would tell me."
Malibu-based One Gun Ranch emailed a statement to Squid Ink, saying: "The mandatory recall of our products is a result of further licensing requirements by the local health department in order to comply with state regulations. It was not a result of contaminated food or improper preparation of our jarred food products. In addition, the commercial kitchens used to prepare One Gun food products adhere to the highest standards of operation and regulations required by the CDPH."
One Gun Ranch CEO Jennifer Hozer told us in a phone interview, "Our understanding is it's a paperwork issue. ... Even though we're doing everything, there's a process you have to go through that we weren't aware of, that they didn't make us aware of, where they basically observe how you do it. Once that happens, we'll be fine. Our practices are in place. In all honesty, the way we do it is above and beyond what they require. It's just a matter of them seeing it."
Hozer added: "We want to protect our customers as well. We understand why they had to do what they did, as far as issuing the recall. It's just unfortunate that it had to be with a scare tactic, causing fear of the product. We've all eaten the food, [and] nobody's ever gotten sick."
The One Gun Ranch soups were sold at the Pacific Palisades Farmers Market. Hozer says she fully expects the company to return to that farmers market, once the paperwork issues are resolved.
John Edwards, president of Raw Inspiration, the nonprofit that operates 20 farmers markets in L.A., told us he learned about the state health department action in the press: "We've never had anything like this in 14 years. We're always going to err on the side of caution, but I wish they would explain it a bit better."
The CDPH issued a similar warning last month, telling consumers not to eat jarred soups from Taste of Roux, which were sold at the Malibu and Autry Museum farmers markets.
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