Listeria Scare Hits West End
By Howard Schwach
The word "Listeria" causes people to panic, even though the food contaminant provides only a slight discomfort and stomach problems for most who contract it and kills fewer than 500 Americans each year.
So, when a number of media outlets broadcast the story that the bacterium had been found in samples of egg salad and seafood salad at Rockaway Farm on Beach 116 Street, many local residents worried about their health and stopped going into the local food shop.
"We lost about half of our business when people heard about the Listeria," Steve Sur, the owner of the food shop told The Wave. "It is really unfair for the state to place our names all over the news when most of these tests never become public."
According to Sur and his wife, Kim, however, there were a number of things that they believe are "suspicious" about both the inspectors and the process.
Sur says that Rockaway Farm was inspected in June of this year and that his store received a clean bill of health. To prove that fact, Sur provided all of the test results, including the one that found the Listeria in food samples, to The Wave.
"We are always inspected once each year," Sur says. "We did not expect another inspection until next June, but we were not worried, because we always keep everything fresh."
Despite the fact that an inspection was not due for several months, Paul Egrie, an inspector for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets showed up at his shop on October 30.
Again, the shop got a clean bill of health.
The next day, on Thursday, October 31, however, Egrie showed up again.
"He said that he forgot to take a sample of food the day before. He said not to worry, that this was a normal testing process," Sur said recently.
According to Sur, Egrie took samples of egg salad and seafood salad from the case.
Sur says that he put the food into a bag that was both dirty and contaminated,
"I looked at the bag and asked him to put it into a clean bag," Amy Sur said. "He told me that all the clean bags were in his car and that this one was okay."
"The bag was really contaminated," she said. "I really thought it was wrong that he was using it."
She was also concerned that the food, which is made daily in the shop without the use of preservatives, would spoil before it could be tested.
That was the last they heard of the food or the test until two weeks later, on Thursday,November 14.
Another state inspector, D.H. Williams, came to the shop. He told them that the samples had tested positive for Listeria.
"He looked around at the shop and said, 'maybe I'm in the wrong store,'" Sur said. "He told me that I had to stop selling the egg salad and seafood salad. We complied.
Sur asked Williams to take samples that day and have them tested immediately to prove that his food was safe.
Williams told him that the state labs in Albany, where the food was tested, is closed on Friday, and that tests could not be done until the following week.
"Then, I knew what happened," Sur said. "They took the original sample on a Thursday and it was not tested until the following Monday at the earliest. We do not use preservatives and we throw everything we have not sold away at the end of each day. After an entire weekend, it is no wonder the samples of our salad were contaminated."
Both of the Surs believe that the original inspector, Paul Egrie, was looking to find something at Rockaway Farm.
"I really didn't trust the first inspector," Kim Sur told The Wave. "I had the feeling that he didn't like Koreans very much."
The two are also angry at the way the story was given to the media before a retest was done.
"Not every store that has this problem has been put on television," Sur said. "We were told of a large supermarket that had one positive test and their name was never given out to the television people. They are really being unfair to small businesses."
Rockaway Farm received a clean bill of health from the state earlier this week. They can again begin selling the salads that were "recalled" after the Listeria scare.
They fear that not all of their customers will come back.
"We try and serve the best food in Rockaway," Sur said. "We hope that our customers will understand that this was a bad mix-up and that they will come back."