Tisbury health officials pull local honey brand from stores

Officials also seize honey, containers, and infusing agents from abandoned unit in Vineyard Haven.

Jars of Martha's Vineyard Honey Co. honey were removed from the shelves of Cronig's on Thursday. —Rich Saltzberg

Updated Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, 12:55 pm

Tisbury health officials have pulled Martha’s Vineyard Honey Co. brand honey from the shelves of Cronig’s and Vineyard Grocer due to potential safety and repackaging issues, according to Tisbury Board of Health agent Maura Valley.

Cronig’s owner Steve Bernier told The Times on Friday that the honey was pulled from the shelves of both Cronig’s stores and Healthy Additions on Thursday.

“We haven’t thrown anything away,” he said. “It’s sitting in the backroom waiting for disposition.”

Vineyard Grocer owner Elio Silva told The Times via telephone that one or more Tisbury board of health officials entered his store Thursday and ordered the honey pulled “until they get further information,” he said.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) spokesperson Ann Scales said in an email to The Times that the DPH had recommended that the Tisbury Board of Health “advise consumers to discard the honey if they have it in their homes, and not to allow the product be made available for sale.”

Questions arose about the quality and origin of Martha’s Vineyard Honey Co. honey after Tisbury health officials were called in to inspect a commercial unit above Tropical Restaurant at Five Corners, where James Kozak, owner of the honey brand, had recently been evicted with the assistance of the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office, Ms. Valley said. In the unit were honey jars, honey, large plastic buckets of off-Island honey, and infusing agents (dried chili peppers, teas, and essential oils), among other things, Ms. Valley said. The board of health impounded many of these items from the unit, and has secured them in an undisclosed location, Ms. Valley said. She added that Mr. Kozak signed a release with the sheriff’s office abandoning what he left behind in that unit.

“The Tisbury Board of Health has reason to believe that the honey stored in unit 209 of 13 Beach Road Extension has been processed, repackaged, and infused in an unsanitary, unlicensed manner, and is therefore adulterated and unsafe,” states a letter that agent Maura Valley wrote to Mr. Kozak (and delivered to him via the Tisbury Police Department), and which he provided to The Times.

Mr. Kozak told The Times on Friday that the Tisbury Board of Health executed what he described as a “warrantless search” of his business premises on Beach Road, and “illegally” confiscated a personal collection of honey jars as well as “experimental” jars. He expressed a dim view of his landlord, and said the landlord pushed an “unreasonable search and seizure” of his commercial space. Mr. Kozak contends that his Fourth, Fifth, and 14th Amendment rights have been violated. Maura Valley and Tisbury town administrator John “Jay” Grande are named in a civil action he said he filed in Edgartown to defend his rights and to seek a minimum of $25,000 in damages. The Times has been unable to confirm the existence of this suit.

In this file photo, James Kozak suited up to remove a hive from a house scheduled for demolition. — Stacey Rupolo

“Mr. Kozak was evicted from a commercial office space in accordance with Massachusetts law,” attorney Timothy Moriarty said in a text message to The Times. Mr. Moriarty represents Sawyer Realty Group, Mr. Kozak’s landlord.“A judgment for possession was obtained from the Edgartown District Court. Mr. Kozak then made various attempts to have the court-ordered bond waived, all of which were denied because the courts found that any appeal brought by Mr. Kozak would be frivolous.” Mr. Moriarty explained that when Mr. Kozak failed to pay the court-ordered bond, Mr. Moriarity sought a “writ of execution for possession,” which essentially means an order for eviction. which was levied by the sheriff. “Mr. Kozak removed his personal property from the premises and signed over the remaining property to the sheriff,” Mr. Moriarty wrote, “authorizing its disposal. He was given an additional opportunity to remove the refuse that remained. In light of the putrid smell, insects, and appearance of the remaining property, the Board of Health was alerted due to concerns for the health and safety of the general public. Following inspection, the Tisbury Board of Health seized some of the remaining items in accordance with their authority.”

The landlord reported the insects and odor, Mr. Moriarty said. “A lot” of fruit flies were in the unit, Ms. Valley said. However, she did not recall encountering any “putrid” scents. Wild honey can be sold without a license because it’s a direct farm product, Ms. Valley noted, but a license and a commercial kitchen are required when honey is repackaged or infused. Evidence collected and photographed in the unit seemed to indicate a repackaging and infusion operation in an unsanitary and uninspected space, Ms. Valley said, but she declined to elaborate prior to a scheduled hearing. However, she did note that the unit Mr. Kozak previously occupied had no sink or impermeable surfaces such as stainless steel —key sanitary elements of a commercial kitchen.

The Tisbury Board of Health canceled a hearing on Mr. Kozak’s honey operation that was scheduled for Tuesday at 4:15, after Mr. Kozak said he would not attend, Ms. Valley told The Times. The board instead heard a report from Ms. Valley on the matter. Ms. Valley told the board that upon entering Mr. Kozak’s former unit, she discovered “jars of honey both flavored and unflavored labeled for sale, and several jars of essential oils that I believed were being used to infuse the honey.”

She also reported discovering several empty 60-pound honey buckets from Merrimack Valley Apiaries in Billerica. In accordance with the Federal Food Code, she said she put a hold on Mr. Kozak’s product because she suspected it might be unsafe and adulterated: “And having reason to believe the hold would be violated, [I] took the honey and essential oils and put them in storage.” Ms. Valley noted that she’d consulted with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Food Protection Program. “We’re in agreement that it would be prudent to prevent the sale of the product,” she said. She told the board that she has informed the Vineyard’s other health agents about the honey.

Jen Freeman, manager of Reliable Market, told The Times she was contacted by the Oak Bluffs Board of Health about the honey, but nothing needed to be pulled from the store’s stock because they don’t carry the brand. West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson said he joined Ms. Valley during her inspection of Mr. Kozak’s unit as a courtesy, and found conditions there “not sanitary in my opinion.” Mr. Johnson said he subsequently oversaw the removal of 10 jars of the honey from Cronig’s West Tisbury store.

In response to a question from board member Michael Loberg, Ms. Valley confirmed that Mr. Kozak told her he is taking legal action against the board, but that the board has not yet been served.

Reached by telephone Wednesday morning, a representative of the Dukes County Superior Court clerk’s office said the case filing “doesn’t exist as of yet.”

In a telephone call with The Times Wednesday morning, Mr. Kozak said he is considering expanding his suit to name other Island boards of health that have removed his honey from store shelves.

Tisbury health board chairman Malcolm Boyd praised Ms. Valley for the thoroughness of her report and of her investigation overall. “Procedurally very complete. You did a great job on this. Thank you,” he said.

The hearing has been rescheduled for Nov. 14 at 4:15. Mr. Kozak said he plans to come with an attorney, Ms. Valley said.

Island honey brands other than Martha’s Vineyard Honey Co. are not part of the Tisbury Board of Health’s investigation.

Updated with Ms. Valley’s report to the Tisbury Board of Health.