The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says almost 27,000 cans of fish processed at a Quinault Nation plant were recalled last spring because lab tests showed that faulty seals and cooking irregularities allowed dangerous microorganisms to grow in canned and smoked salmon, sturgeon, razor clams and tuna processed there.

Share story

Before a federal inspection forced a recall last spring of almost 27,000 cans of fish processed at a Quinault Nation plant, Quinault Vice Chairman Andrew Mail ate 36 cans of the stuff.

He didn’t get botulism. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the recall may have avoided a food-poisoning outbreak. FDA lab tests showed that faulty seals and cooking irregularities allowed dangerous microorganisms to grow in canned and smoked salmon, sturgeon, razor clams and tuna processed at the plant. Investigators also wrote in a November warning letter that they found rodent and bird droppings, cat hair, feathers and insect larvae there.

“The inspection revealed that your low-acid canned seafood products are adulterated … in that they have been prepared, packed or held under unsanitary conditions whereby they may have been contaminated with filth or rendered injurious to health,” FDA District Director Charles Breen wrote in his letter to the Quinault tribal chairwoman, Fawn Sharp.

The Quinault Tribal Enterprises processing plant is a major employer for the remote Quinault Nation on the Olympic Peninsula. Depending on the season, the “fish house,” which has been in operation since the 1970s, employs between 50 and 100 people and supports the 3,000-member tribe’s fishing industry.

“Quinaults have been fishing people since the beginning of time, and that brought us into this era where we have this fish plant that buys and processes fish and sells fish worldwide,” said Guy Capoeman, the CEO of Quinault Tribal Enterprises, which includes the fish plant.

So it was serious news in April last year when federal inspectors cited major problems with the canned-fish operation. As part of its response, the plant has stopped canning fish altogether and now only sells fresh fish.

“The Quinault Tribal Enterprises took appropriate steps to correct the problems with the cans,” Breen said in an interview. Federal inspectors have been in touch with the plant’s operators, and they will return later this year for another inspection, he said.

The FDA sent the tribe a six-page letter in November detailing 13 serious violations of federal food-packing regulations. They included:

• Not examining the seams that keep cans closed, and not even having the equipment to be able to examine the seams;

• Failure to measure to make sure cans were filled with the appropriate amount of fish;

• Failure to ensure sanitizers like bleach couldn’t contaminate the food;

• Not having a plan for a recall;

• Failure to check that the fish stayed at the right temperature. During the inspection, according to the letter, the operator wasn’t even aware of the temperature requirements;

• Rodent and cat droppings at the plant, including in the insulation hanging above the clam hand-packaging room and on pallets of finished cans of fish. Inspectors also found bird feathers in the fish-processing room and bird droppings in storage areas, and insect larvae and cat hair in storage areas and above some processing rooms.

• Gaps in the walls and windows that made it easy for pests to get in.

• Litter and waste in and around the building. One storage area was “cluttered with unused equipment, an aquarium, office equipment, a dishwasher, plastic sheeting, a cement mixer, packing material, and other rubbish,” according to the letter.

And inspectors determined the problems made the fish unsafe. The FDA lab-tested 25 samples of different kinds of fish and found that they had microorganisms growing in them and had inadequate seals.

The Quinaults did a voluntary recall on the second day of the federal government’s inspection and have since hired a consultant to help them keep in compliance, said Capoeman.

“Quinault product is safe. It’s fresh and it’s the best you can get,” he said. “We want something positive out of this. This isn’t a negative and we’re trying to correct these things. It’s a matter of cleaning up and cleaning house.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.