SEATTLE - A customer posted a video last week of rats running through an aisle at a QFC in Wallingford.
In the short video, user Will Clarke captured at least three different rats crossing the aisle and moving around cereal bins.
"They're cute,” Clarke told KIRO 7, “they’re just in the wrong place."
Clarke said he saw three of them but heard more running and squeaking.
A QFC spokeswoman told KIRO 7 they discarded their bulk products in that aisle and that the company voluntarily contacted the King County Health Department. She said pest control has been to the store every day since the video incident and that they made sure the problem was resolved.
Keith Seinfeld, a spokesman for the King County Health Department, said the store staff contacted them over the phone for advice on handling the situation.
“They were being proactive and explained the problem in detail, and our staff gave detailed advice, and fine-tuned it over the course of several days and multiple conversations,” Seinfeld said.
In general, a rat problem would be considered a “blue violation,” which would not merit any immediate penalties. A “blue violation” refers to a problem with maintenance or sanitation, whereas a “red violation” is a critical problem with food handling that could lead to food-borne illness, like a broken refrigerator or no running water.
The health department did not conduct a full-scale inspection after this incident and did not issue any citations. Grocery stores are inspected at least twice a year.
Seinfeld said QFC acted appropriately by contacting them, and he encourages other businesses to do the same in consulting health department staff when issues arise.
After additional questioning, the QFC spokeswoman admitted the rats on video wasn’t the first time there were rodents in the store.
“We have been made aware of rodent sightings at that store prior to this video and had already stepped up our pest control as a result to resolve the issue in prior weeks,” spokeswoman Amanda Ip said in a statement. "This man's video was the first re-sighting of rodents at that location for weeks.”
We asked Scott Meschke, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington about the health risks connected with eating food touched by rats.
He said they can carry salmonella or E. Coli.
"Possibly through the shedding of hair or feces or urine. those themselves can carry bacteria or microorganisms," Meschke added, "You can't tell whether they've been in the sewer the bathrooms where they have been prior to getting in the food items.
Rat infestations are not only gross, but they’re also very dangerous. Rats as well as insects can and do carry food borne pathogens. Should rats or insects come in direct contact with food or food preparation areas it is possible to transfer that illness to the consumer.
The recent chicken recall from Foster Farms is a prime example. One of Foster Farms’ largest processing plants was shut down earlier this year because of an investigation related to unsanitary conditions, including the presence of pests. This facility ended up being directly connected to hundreds of cases of Salmonella poisoning across the country.
"The bottom line is rats and other pests are a huge problem and their presence in any establishment that prepares, processes, or sells food needs to be dealt with immediately," said food safety expert and attorney, Bill Marler.
Clarke said he was shocked when he first came across the rats.
“I’m outraged that it got to the point that it did, because there were clearly a lot of them," Clarke said. "It wasn’t something that happened yesterday.”
Monday night, KIRO 7 saw that bulk items were re-stocked. The company said they made sure the rats had not returned.
One customer told KIRO 7 he saw rat traps underneath the bulk bins Monday night.
Earlier, Ip sent this statement:
Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our food and the cleanliness of our stores. We have no tolerance for this kind of situation and are taking immediate action.
We thoroughly sanitized this area and, out of an abundance of caution, we discarded our bulk products and we will not restock for [a period of time]. We are stepping up our pest control enforcement both in and around our store. We have voluntarily contacted the King County Health Department and are going to be working closely with them to make sure we are doing everything we can to prevent this from happening again.
We will also ask the Health Department and other officials to help us work together with our neighbors to ensure the environment around our store is as healthy as it should be, so things like open trash containers are not causing potential problems for us and for our neighbors as well.
We apologize for this unfortunate situation and can assure our customers that we are doing everything possible to prevent future problems from occurring.