There are no mice at Holy Land's restaurant and grocery store in northeast Minneapolis, or the one in the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street. Or, for that matter, the one at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
This is something company CEO Majdi Wadi says several times, for emphasis. He does so while admitting that yes, the company recently had a mouse problem at a warehouse it owns on Central Avenue.
But traveling on foot from there to Holy Land's restaurant on Broadway Avenue would take almost an hour, maybe even longer if you're a mouse.
Earlier this year, a warehouse owned by the popular purveyors of "old world cuisine" was subject to a routine unannounced inspection by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which discovered "significant evidence of rodent activity," according to a letter the agency sent Holy Land last month.
Specifically, FDA inspectors observed "a rodent nest," "excreta pellets too-numerous-to-count," "live rodents" caught in one trap, and at least one deceased mouse caught in a "snap trap," according to the letter. The FDA's "warning" of June 29 acknowledges that, as "corrective action," Holy Land had voluntarily disposed of one 40-pound bag of basmati rice which had been stored on a pallet with observable "rodent nesting material."
Wadi says the company's done much more than throw out a bag of rice, and is only waiting for the FDA to confirm its facility is now mouse-free. Documents sent to City Pages detail three separate "third-party" audits conducted at the Central Avenue facility, two by a registered environmental health specialist, and the third by AIB, an international food safety firm.
Each of the three tests, two of them conducted in the past week, documents no current rodent activity inside the warehouse, which Holy Land says in a statement is "used as a holding facility by us and others." Wadi says some wary customers (or would-be customers) have been confused by rumors of the FDA letter, believing rodents were discovered in one of Holy Land's restaurants.
Holy Land's popular pita bread is not baked at the Central Avenue space, and its hummus is also made elsewhere, says Wadi. He cites construction on Central Avenue as a factor in driving area mice into the shelter of buildings, and says Holy Land is "working closely" with a neighboring business to keep them from moving in.
"We contracted with a pest control company to go inside [the neighbor's] building, at our expense," Wadi says. "We are not denying that there has been an issue."
Holy Land has also "completely changed" its procedure for receiving food shipments, according to Wadi, who describes more thorough inspections, including the use of a "blue light" scanner to detect any unwelcome objects... or visitors.
Wadi wants the FDA to come back as soon as possible to clear the company's name, but has been told it can take months for a second inspection to occur. In the meantime, he's been sending the agency the results of independent audits—"we sent the inspection we had on Friday by DHL," he says —and inviting people to come see for themselves.
"We are the only supermarket and restaurant that follows an open book policy with our customers," Holy Land wrote in a statement earlier this month, "which allows them to tour any of our facilities without any prior notices."
Wadi extended the same invitation to City Pages. He says his company was "responsible" for the finding of mice nesting in rice, though he wonders if the FDA's letter hasn't been blown out of proportion.
"It's like if you were driving and speeding, it can make it sound like you were going 90 [miles an hour] instead of 30," he says. "But they are doing their job, they are there to protect us. They are working for our best interest."
As he anxiously awaits official clearance from the FDA, Wadi cites passing grades from Ecolab, the independent environmental health inspector, and two food safety audit firms, one of which has given Holy Land risk prevention ratings of "above 95 percent for five years in a row."
He says customers shouldn't worry about putting Holy Land products, prepared meals or groceries, in their mouths. In its statement about the mouse issue, Holy Land cites its company motto: "We don't feed your families what we don't feed ours."