Jun. 8—A man accused of putting razor blades and screws into pizza dough sold at Hannaford stores last year will plead guilty to a federal crime.
A federal grand jury indicted Nicholas R. Mitchell in March on two counts of tampering with a consumer product. An agreement filed in court this week shows Mitchell has agreed to plead guilty to one of those counts and accept a sentence of as much as 4 years and nine months in prison. If the judge imposes a longer sentence, Mitchell has the right to appeal. The penalty for that charge could be up to 10 years.
A formal plea hearing will be held June 24. The sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Mitchell, 39, was arrested in October after police in Saco, Sanford and Dover, New Hampshire, began investigating reports that customers had found razor blades and metal fragments in Portland Pie Co. pizza dough sold at Hannaford supermarkets. There were no reports of injuries or illnesses from the alleged tampering.
The case focused attention on gaps in food security practices after both Hannaford and the pizza dough maker revealed they had received similar reports of problems with pizza dough in the two previous months but had not notified customers, police or food safety regulators.
Mitchell was initially charged in state court with reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon and violating the conditions of his release, which prohibited him from engaging in new criminal conduct or possessing dangerous weapons, including razor blades. He had an initial appearance in Biddeford District Court on those charges last year.
At the time, Saco police said they were sharing information about their investigation with federal authorities. It is a federal crime to tamper with food products in a way that affects interstate commerce, even if no one is sickened or harmed. Mitchell has been in jail since his arrest, and he originally pleaded not guilty to the two federal charges.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office did not return an email about the case Tuesday afternoon. David Beneman, the federal public defender who is representing Mitchell, said he could not comment on a pending case.
The documents filed Monday include the prosecution's version of the alleged crime, which Mitchell will agree not to contest when he pleads guilty. The government will ask for certain reductions in sentencing because Mitchell has agreed to plead guilty.
"Had the case proceeded to trial, the government would produce evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that on October 5, 2020, this defendant knowingly tampered with pizza dough by placing razor blades into the dough that was sold to consumers at a Saco supermarket," that document says.
Mitchell had been fired last summer from his job as a forklift operator for It'll Be Pizza, the Scarborough company that manufactures pizza doughs to be sold in Hannaford and other grocery stores.
The first reports of food tampering surfaced a few months later.
After pizza dough was returned to the Saco Hannaford last October with metal blades in it, surveillance video showed Mitchell had entered the store on Oct. 5 and went directly to the refrigerated case of pizza dough. He allegedly handled multiple doughs and remained near the case for seven minutes, and then left the store without stopping or buying anything. Mitchell was the only person near the case for an extended period of time that day.
"Three patrons purchased pizza doughs within a couple of hours of the defendant's activity at the refrigerator case," the document says. "When the patrons subsequently opened the pizza dough, they discovered razor blades secreted inside the pizza dough."
Store personnel removed the unsold doughs and found another with a razor blade inside.
After the contaminated dough was found in Saco in October, Hannaford issued a product recall for all Portland Pie dough and cheese products sold at its 184 stores in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The recall was later expanded to Shaw's and Star Market stores in five states.
Hannaford employees had been notified in August about a similar problems with pizza dough sold at its Sanford store, but the company did not alert customers, police or health officials in that case until after police began investigating the Saco incident two months later.
The grocery chain provided a statement at the time blaming the failure to inform customers or police in August to a technology fault in their internal reporting system. Hannaford apologized and promised to add more safeguards to that system. The state was investigating that delay last year as an apparent violation of the section of the Maine Food Code that requires licensed grocers to report imminent health hazards.
A spokesman said in March that the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry was in ongoing communication with Hannaford about that incident. The grocery chain had made improvements and was clear on the expectations, he said.
It'll Be Pizza also received three complaints of dough balls containing screws at other Hannaford stores in September. But the company did not report those incidents until after Saco police shared publicly that razor blades had been found in It'll Be Pizza dough at Hannaford stores in Saco and Sanford.
The company said the report was delayed because it was trying to make sense of the customer reports, confirm the screws weren't used in its dough making machinery and gather information about Mitchell, who had raised suspicion with threatening phone calls after he was terminated.
It wasn't clear whether Mitchell was living in Sanford or Dover, New Hampshire, at the time of his arrest. Federal and state court documents are inconsistent.