From the Seattle Times…

Jeff Babcock, owner of Zoka Coffee Roaster & Tea, has spent the past month learning a painful and public lesson in bureaucratic process.

On Sept. 9, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration posted on its website a warning letter to Zoka, saying it had found evidence of rodent and insect infestation at the company’s Seattle roastery. (A handy bit of FDA jargon: REP means “rodent excreta pellets.”)

The news swept through Seattle’s coffee community and was widely discussed on Twitter, where baristas often chat. Zoka has three cafes in Seattle, one in Kirkland and two in Japan.

Babcock was mortified. He knew there had been a problem last spring, when the FDA inspected, but he had addressed it within days: tossing out bags of coffee, cleaning the plant with bleach and setting up 32 mouse traps that have caught nothing since April.

“We went after them like wolves. It was a big deal,” Babcock says. “We shut down the roastery for four days, bleached it, and added all the recommendations the FDA suggested and then some.”

However, while he worked closely with the state Department of Agriculture on the problem and got its clearance to resume roasting, Babcock never let the FDA know what he’d done.

He thought the state was keeping the FDA informed, and that he’d met both agencies’ requirements.

“I didn’t know I had to write two letters,” Babcock says.

Claudia Coles, the administrator in charge of compliance and outreach at the state’s agriculture department, says Zoka made significant improvements in the spring and continued to make improvements all summer.

“Unfortunately, in the

[September FDA] warning letter those changes and updates are not reflected,” she says.

Her agency told the FDA last spring that Zoka was cleared to roast again but did not give it details that would take the place of Zoka communicating its efforts directly to the FDA, she said.

FDA spokesman Alan Bennett says he can’t speculate about whether Zoka would have gotten a warning letter if it had responded earlier.

Warning letters are meant to tell companies they’re doing something wrong, not to warn the public, Bennett says. And a company can ask the FDA to post its response to a warning letter on the agency’s website.

Babcock says he has now replied to the FDA’s letter and expects another inspection at some point. He also plans to ask that Zoka’s response be posted on the FDA’s website.

Meanwhile, the state inspected Zoka’s roastery on Sept. 14 and gave it a passing score of 93 out of 100. Its last regular state inspection was on Aug. 24, 2010, when it received a 96.

Business has been hurt “maybe a little,” Babcock says. “We had people saying terrible things that were not true.”

The rhetoric cooled when Zoka posted a response on its website, explaining what had happened.

“We offered anybody to come look at the roastery any time they want,” he says. “My intention is to make it and keep it the cleanest roastery on West Coast, so it never happens again.”

— Melissa Allison,

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