On August 20, 2012, a customer report of a cockroach in a bag of Italian bread prompted three state inspectors to spend two days in Uncle Giuseppe's supermarket in Port Jefferson Station, according to state records, where instead of cockroaches they found more than a dozen flies buzzing around the deli kitchen, meat room and seafood preparation areas.
It was a critical violation, and the market failed inspection.
When inspectors came back in four months, the market failed again, marking its third failure since the store opened in 2010.
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The fly problem in August was one of nine critical flaws – considered hazardous to a person's health – uncovered by inspectors, according to public information supplied by the state's Department of Agriculture and Markets, which inspects grocery stores and markets. The critical problems included meat grinders and a mixing machine clogged with residue, unrefrigerated fresh cheeses, sausage and soft cheese labeled with a use-by date that exceeded the 14 day limit allowed by law and the lack of a hand-washing sink in the cheese grating room.
The inspectors also flagged 35 general deficiencies, including storage-room shelves covered in mildew and said the store did not have a valid state license to prepare and serve food at the time of the inspection.
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For the Dec. 7, 2012 inspection, state workers were once again called to the market after a shopper complained that the market was selling previously frozen seafood labeled as fresh. Again, the inspection found nothing related to the consumer complaint but did find several other problems, including slime and food waste buildup on pizza dough storage containers, the records show.
The store failed the reinspection with a total of five critical deficiencies and 51 general deficiencies, the most for any other market in the area. The store still did not have a valid license to prepare and serve food, although management stated an application had been submitted.
To put in local perspective, the Bravo Supermarket in Port Jefferson Station slapped with 24 of these general deficiencies, the second most cited local store, according to recent inspection data.
In total, the Port Jefferson Uncle Giuseppe's store has failed three out of its four visits from the state.
Uncle Giuseppe's declined to be interviewed for this story, but did send a statement addressing its inspection record.
"Whereas other supermarkets purchase food from other companies, or prepare it offsite and warehouse the products in their stores, almost everything we sell is made from scratch. As a result, minor violations are more prevalent in Uncle Giuseppe’s than in a location that does not directly handle food and ingredients as often," company spokeswoman Arielle Brechisci said in the statement.
The state data show the market is having similar inspection results across its entire network. Uncle Giuseppe's has flunked health inspections at four of its five Long Island markets, including in Smithtown, which, like Port Jefferson, failed its most recent visit.
On Sept. 27, 2012, inspectors destroyed nearly five pounds of canolis and other cream-filled pastries deemed unfit for sale at the Smithtown market, a critical health issue that resulted in the market's eighth failed health inspection since opening in 2005. It has passed nine times.
The canoli problem was one of seven critical flaws uncovered by inspectors responding to a shopper complaint that marinated raw chicken bought at the store made them sick, according to inspectors.
Other critical violations included a food buildup in a meat grinder, cutting boards with deep knife scores with embedded material, flies in the bakery and seafood departments and 14 pounds of Pecorino Romano cheese possibly contaminated by beef blood, which was destroyed during the inspection.
Inspectors also found 50 general deficiencies not considered a health risk, the highest tally for these violations found in any Smithtown store in recent inspections. Costco in Nesconset ranked second, with 19 general violations in its last inspection.
On seven occasions inspectors were called to the the Smithtown store, considered the flagship of the Farmingdale-based chain known for its Italian deli charm at a supermarket scale, after shoppers complained that food from raw chicken to prepared quiche made them sick. In one July 2011 incident, a woman filed a complaint with the Suffolk County Department of Health alleging prepared lasagna and eggplant she bought gave her a bout of campylobacteriosis, a painful food-borne bacterial infection that can cause vomiting and bloody diarrhea in the worst cases.
County health department spokeswoman Grace Kelly-McGovern could not confirm the complaint by press time, but said it would be common practice for the county to receive the complaint and alert the state inspection board. Beyond that, the county has little to do with overseeing supermarket safety, she said.
Uncle Giuseppe's, in its statement, said the Smithtown issues were not as major as the inspectors made them out to be.
"Many of the infractions listed in Smithtown’s most recent report are very minor: some involving non-food material storage in non-food areas, a thermometer that was incorrect by two degrees, and a single record missing from a daily production report. The most serious infraction – cheese contaminated with blood – was blood from the roasts that were being stuffed with the cheese."
The store also acknowledged it has had illness complaints, but said they are "one-in-a-million" incidents.
"We’ve received seven complaints of illness in the past eight years that Smithtown has been opened, and during that time we’ve serviced more than five million transactions."
In Massapequa, where Uncle Giuseppe's launched its newest store in May 2011, the market has also failed half of its inspections.
On Sept. 11, 2012, an inspector found cooked chicken breasts in danger of being contaminated by raw chicken because of improper processing procedures, according to the reports.
The inspection also revealed food was not being cooled properly – chicken breasts were stored in deep containers. The store switched to shallow containers, and was not cited for this problem during a reinspection on Dec. 4, 2012.
The inspector did note 18 general deficiencies in the reinspection, mostly involving dirty equipment.
Meanwhile, the chain's first storefront in East Meadow has failed half of its inspections since 2000, most recently on June 21, 2012, when inspectors found food was not being cooled properly as well as unsanitary cutting boards.
The store passed its most recent inspection on August 21, 2012, though the inspector was still concerned about proper food cooling, citing the store for a less serious violation.
A bright spot among the chain: Uncle Giuseppe's smallest store in Port Washington has never failed a state health inspection.
State records do show the company responding to its tainted inspection record. After a failed inspection in January 2012, inspectors held a food-safety conference with store management.
Meanwhile, locals we asked on our Facebook page had rave reviews for the market.
"I absolutely love Uncle Guiseppes!! It's ridiculously clean, and the service is great!!! The only setback is that they don't carry every item like most stores. But there produce is perfect and there food is always fresh!!" said Dorothy Du Jany-Paulette.
Jeanette Ferraro-Heller agreed. "Love, love, love Uncle G's. The fresh mozzarella is outstanding, as is the pasta. The pesto sauce is scrumptious. All the food is fabulous! If you hit it at the right time on the weekend there is live music. I have zero complaints and am so glad they came into town!"
Others pointed to the service and neighborly attitude they've experienced from staff at the market.
"We ate there after [Hurricane] Sandy as they had power, tables to eat and wasn't crowded like the few other places with power (who thinks to go to the supermarket when you have no power). We were even able to charge our cell phones!" said Eric Christiansen.
Bill Saltarelli had a similar experience.
"I brought back a cake once that tasted off. Not only did they give me back a full refund, they told me to grab another cake?? Great fresh pastas choices, fresh sausages, great breads. I love it here."