Mar. 29—A man has pleaded not guilty to federal charges accusing him of putting a razor blade and a screw into pizza dough sold at Hannaford stores last year.
Nicholas R. Mitchell, 39, is still being held without bail on probation violations. A federal grand jury indicted him last week on two counts of tampering with a consumer product. He appeared in court via Zoom for the first time on those charges Monday.
Mitchell 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.
He 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 in October.
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. Now, York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery said the state charges will be dismissed because of the federal indictment, but the probation violations are still pending. Mitchell is also still facing an unrelated felony charge for domestic violence assault from last April.
The federal government filed a motion for detention, but the parties agreed Monday to postpone any arguments about that matter because Mitchell is already in state custody. He was held at the York County Jail until Friday, when he was moved another facility. A jail official said Monday he did not know where Mitchell had been transferred, and a spokesman for the U.S. Marshal's Service did not respond to an email or a voicemail with that question.
"Mr. Mitchell is in primary state custody and is detained based on an alleged state bail violation," federal defender David Beneman said during the hearing. "It seems to me that the issue is moot at the moment, and we can address it if there is a change in circumstances in the underlying legal situation."
There were no reports of injuries or illnesses from the alleged tampering.
The indictment filed in federal court is brief. It says Mitchell is accused of putting a screw into pizza dough on Sept. 11, 2020, and a razor blade into dough on Oct. 5. It does not mention specific locations, only that the alleged incidents occurred in Maine.
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.
Documents filed in state court provide more insight into the allegations. The Sanford Hannaford received reports of the suspected tampering in August, when two customers returned backs of fresh dough that contained a razor blade or razor blade fragment. But the grocery chain did not report it to police until Saco police began investigating a report in October. Saco police said two Hannaford customers returned bags of fresh Portland Pie Co. dough purchased Oct. 5 because they contained razor blades and sharp metal fragments.
Affidavits filed in court described how detectives linked Mitchell to the Saco Hannaford and the alleged tampering by using store surveillance video. Police also said Mitchell had been fired from his job as a forklift operator for It'll Be Pizza, the Scarborough company that produces the fresh dough under the Portland Pie label.
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.
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 Monday that Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is in ongoing communication with Hannaford about that incident. The grocery chain has made improvements and is 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.