Abdulla Mubarak wants other consumers to learn from his mistakes.
Earlier this summer, Mubarak discovered what looked like black specks of plastic in store brand ground beef that he bought from a Harris Teeter supermarket in Cary. Since then, Mubarak, of Clayton, has been fighting with the store and one of its suppliers to find out what his family ate by mistake.
In a statement released Monday, a spokesperson said Harris Teeter was sorry that it had been unable to satisfy Mubarak. The company did not answer questions about its own investigation and what efforts it made to pursue information on Mubarak’s behalf.
The supplier of the absorbent pad under the ground beef – possible source of the black specks – declined to share detailed information on the product’s raw materials, saying it is proprietary.
Mubarak said he wanted to share his experience with me so that other consumers can pursue complaints more successfully.
I also spoke to Joe Reardon, the assistant commissioner for consumer protection with the state agriculture department who oversees food safety investigations. Reardon stressed that consumer complaints are vital to a safe food system.
“Consumer complaints have led to national and local recalls of products,” he said.
Last week, a Texas company recalled about 90,000 pounds of ground beef products after consumers complained about metal pieces in the meat.
Here’s what led to Mubarak’s complaint: On June 28, he bought three packages of ground beef and went home to make hamburgers.
Mubarak, a father of two boys, said he and his wife were in a rush to make dinner and used a plastic mold to form the patties. Dinner was almost over when Mubarak said he realized that the leftover raw ground beef was dotted with what appeared to be small pieces of black plastic. His wife insisted they take photos of the tainted meat before he returned it to a nearby Harris Teeter store. That, Mubarak says, was the last smart decision he made.
It’s not as if Mubarak, an engineer who now does quality assurance for Cargill, a food, agriculture, financial and industrial products company, isn’t familiar with how customer service complaints should be handled. He says his mistake was assuming Harris Teeter employees would respond to his concern the way he would handle such a complaint.
Mubarak said he returned the leftover meat and got double his money back. He said he assumed the manager would retain a sample so the foreign substance could be tested and identified. Instead, Mubarak said, a Harris Teeter customer service representative later told him that the manager disposed of all the ground beef containing the black flecks. Harris Teeter told him the black flecks were an absorbent pad that was mistakenly ground with the beef, he said.
But Mubarak’s efforts to find out what those absorbent pads are made of have been stymied.
Mubarak said the New Jersey company that makes the pads, Sealed Air Corp., provided basic information but not enough detail for him to determine the potential health hazard. Martin Ecoff, director of product safety and regulatory compliance, wrote in an Aug. 22 letter to Mubarak that those details are “confidential proprietary information.” On Monday, Sealed Air spokesman Ken Aurichio reiterated that position: “We consider it proprietary.”
Harris Teeter referred the matter to its insurance company and offered Mubarak $2,500 to “resolve the matter.”
In a statement, Harris Teeter spokesperson Danna Jones wrote, “Any time a Harris Teeter shopper is unsatisfied with a product, we encourage them to return it, and we will double their money back. That is what happened in this instance. We’re disappointed we were not able to satisfy this customer.”
Mubarak isn’t satisfied. “I don’t want their $2,500,” he said last week. “I want to know what I ate. I want to know what my kids ate.”