California Pizza Kitchen’s gluten-free pizza… isn’t.

by Carol Blymire on July 25, 2011

in Take Action, Ugh

California Pizza Kitchen’s PR firm sent out the following email to bloggers who write about celiac disease and gluten:

The wait is over! Today California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) has launched gluten free pizza crust, making 29 of their original pizzas available gluten free.

CPK has taken notice of the increased demand with more than 3 million Americans affected by Celiac Disease and created a specialty menu with various gluten free items. Among the 29 different gluten free pizzas available is America’s favorite, The Original BBQ Chicken pizza, the Pear & Gorgonzola pizza and the Wild Mushroom pizza. CPK also offers other gluten free appetizers, soups, salads, specialties, kids items and desserts to choose from on their current menu.

CPK is thrilled to offer those that require gluten free items a menu with the same delicious offering that they’ve always had, now gluten free. Please feel free to tell your readers.
Can I send you any images?

Thank you.

Tracy Rubin
JCUTLER Media Group
13807 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
tracy@jcutlermedia.com

o: 818.981.3023
Follow us on Twitter @jcutlermedia
www.jcutlermedia.com

For now, let’s ignore the myriad typos and grammar issues in that email, and focus on the content and the thrust of their pitch. California Pizza Kitchen paid their public relations firm to reach out specifically to gluten-free bloggers in an effort to promote a new gluten-free menu item which, it turns out, isn’t necessarily gluten-free at all. Check out the fine print on their menu:

“Gluten-Free” designations are based on information provided
by our ingredient suppliers. Warning: Ingredients or production
methods used by our suppliers may change, or there may be
product differences among regional suppliers. Additionally,
normal kitchen operations involve shared cooking and preparation
areas, or we may need to substitute ingredients in menu items.
We are therefore unable to guarantee that any menu item
is free from gluten or any other allergen, and we assume no
responsibility for guests with food allergies or sensitivities.

[Bolding is theirs, not mine.]

 

So, if CPK can’t guarantee their gluten-free products are, in fact, gluten-free, then why are they paying their public relations firm to blatantly pitch gluten-free writers with a product offering that CANNOT BE DELIVERED UPON?

It’s irresponsible, and it needs to stop.

I’m no stranger to restaurant kitchens. I know how difficult it is for restaurants to work with customers who have food allergies or autoimmune disorders like celiac disease. It’s an incredibly fast-paced work environment with so many different ways a customer’s “NO GLUTEN” request could get dropped during the service process — the server not writing it down or not entering it into the POS system, the expediter not getting the right plates in the right places, etc.  So, I understand how difficult it is to work with customers who have food allergies. Believe me. I do.

But what I don’t understand is why California Pizza Kitchen would so blatantly target a community it cannot serve.

Let’s all be clear about something pretty fundamental to the gluten-free community — something we all inherently know, but something California Pizza Kitchen needs to be called out on: Unless an entire pizza joint is gluten-free, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS GLUTEN-FREE PIZZA.  In any establishment that serves pizza, the risk of cross-contamination is just too high: flour-laden prep areas, gluten-tainted ovens, sauce ladles that regularly touch “normal” pizza dough before being plunked back into the sauce then onto gluten-free dough, slicer and pizza peel issues, staff error… the list goes on and on.

I’m really sick and tired of companies trying to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon when they have absolutely no means with which to actually deliver on their promise. It’s wrong, and it needs to stop. All it took was a simple Google search to find story after story and comment after comment about consumers who tried CPK’s alleged gluten-free pizza, only to get sick from it.

I run my own business, so I understand the need to be profitable. But, I also believe when it comes to health and disease, there needs to be greater integrity not just in a company’s product offerings, but also in that organization’s communications efforts.

California Pizza Kitchen fell down on the job in both regards.

Can they call their food gluten-free when what ends up on the table in front of you very likely has gluten in it? No. Could they call it gluten-reduced? Sure. Or, could they just be honest and truthful and say, “While we wish our menu offerings could be enjoyed by everyone, we’re sorry they cannot. But, we’d rather be upfront and honest with you about it, than put a customer’s health at-risk.”

Honesty and integrity go a long way. Deceptive marketing practices do not.

So, what can we do about it?

Let your voice be heard!!  Don’t just sit there at your computer and be angry.  Take action!  Take ten minutes out of your day to call and email a few decision makers to let them know about California Pizza Kitchen’s deceptive marketing practices, and the severe risk at which it puts people with celiac disease, a chronic, debilitating autoimmune disorder.

We can’t continue to sit back and let companies put our health and well-being at risk.  It’s up to us to take action to make a difference, and to encourage our friends, families, co-workers, and others to support us by joining us in this effort.

Below are some ways you can let your voice be heard:

Federal Trade Commission
Bureau of Consumer Protection
Submit a complaint online
There is an open field on the online form that allows you to register your concern about CPK’s deceptive marketing practices as it relates to people with celiac disease.

Los Angeles Times editorial desk: Send a letter to the editor of CPK’s hometown newspaper.  Tell them about CPK’s deliberately misleading marketing practices targeted toward people with a serious, chronic disorder.

And, if there’s a California Pizza kitchen in your city or town, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper to let them know about CPK’s deceptive business practices.

California Pizza Kitchen
6053 West Century Boulevard, 11th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90045-6438
310-342-5000

Co-CEO Larry Flax
lflax@cpk.com

Co-CEO Richard Rosenfield
rrosenfield@cpk.com

Chief Communications Officer Sarah Goldsmith-Grover
Direct phone line: 310-342-4656
sgoldsmith@cpk.com

Golden Gate Capital
Golden Gate Capital recently acquired and now owns California Pizza Kitchen.
One Embarcadero Center, 39th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94111
Telephone: (415) 983-2700
Fax: (415) 983-2701

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lisa July 25, 2011 at 3:48 pm

While I agree in the most basic sense with your reaction, I have to wonder if we are equally as outraged by every other restaurant with a “gluten free” offering? For instance, PF Changs has also embraced the gluten free community, but also states on their menu that gluten filled products are also prepared in their kitchen. By default, they are saying the exact same thing in regards to the possibility of contamination. Yet I have heard zero outrage or reaction about their menu. Why is that?

To me, this is simply part of being Celiac, is reading the fine print – which to CPK’s credit, they DO state they cannot guarantee the pizza will be gluten free. If they hadn’t made that statement, the outrage would be fully justified. But unfortunately they did cover their own butts here, in my opinion.

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2 gaile July 25, 2011 at 5:18 pm

because PF changs prepares gluten free food that people can eat safely. If people were regularly being sickened by their food, there would be outrage. In fact, PF changs does an excellent job of serving the gluten free community.

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3 Celeste November 8, 2011 at 11:17 am

I have to agree with Gaile. I commend PF Changs for all they’ve done for the gf community. I have eaten there repeatedly and I’ve never gotten sick. Never. Not once. Nor has anyone in my family or my extended family. And I have to add I am very sensitive and can only eat out at very few places. PF Changs has a separate part of their kitchen designated to gf, the plates are special and most of the waiters who have served us have been well trained in gf foods. I don’t think CPK fully understands what celiac disease is and how to prepare foods for those who must avoid gf – to me they like many companies out there saw another way to make a buck. To me that’s as sickening as gluten! This is really bothering me right now because my daughter is interviewing with them to be a gf waitress. I made her read this today and sorry to say I hope she doesn’t get the job but instead finds one in an establishment that has a higher vision and truly seeks to help those of us with celiac.

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4 Gary November 20, 2011 at 6:30 pm

I disagree re: PF Changs. I went there specifically because it is so difficult to find enjoy Chinese food G-Free. My entire table ordered only off the G-Free menu so we could dine family style. It wasn’t a matter of a couple of hours until I was incredible sick from what I can only guess was cross-contamination. We have to be careful everywhere we go.

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5 Sue B August 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm

I have tried GF food at Changs 4-5 times and gotten sick every time. I think the problem is the sauces. Also, a lot of Chinese food companies are starting to mix wheat into the rice noodles. Can’t stand all the shrieking, screaming pre-schoolers running wild everywhere, even at 10 P.M. when they should have been in bed, and the restaurant’s policy of doing absolutely nothing when other customers complain. That, even more than the “almost GF” food there keeps me away!

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6 Sarah July 25, 2011 at 3:52 pm

The grammar in that press release is nothing but embarrassing, never mind the fact that the message is completely false! Great post. Has there been any response from CPK to the outcry?

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7 Sandra July 25, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Great post!
I agree, more and more places seem to be tossing around the word “gluten free” just to drum up business. It is unfortunate and quite dangerous. There need’s to be some sort of restaurant standard for handling dietary restrictions. If an establishment can not cater to me I would be grateful for the honesty. BUT ones who have GF options on the menu should have to meet certain standards and criteria.

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8 The Celiac Husband July 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm

It’s always been complicated to dine out GF, it always will be. Not just Pizza. One unreliable line cook…. end of story. That disclaimer CPK put in, is to cover their a** , since yours is a litigious society and some coporate lawyers made them put it on the menu to protect Golden Gate’s investment.
My wife took the bull by it’s horn and did exactly what you said. She took action. Not by writing to the papers or contact the FTC. She opened a gluten free bakery. 100% no cross contamination. I am not even allowed in the kitchen part when I visit.
Local Celiacs ate it up (literally) and support has been great, exactly for the reasons you mentioned. Absolutely no cross contamination.

Her first international licensee is opening up a 100% gluten free bakery this week in Las Vegas, a logic location for all the Celiacs going to that city. A town that caters to 37 million visitors each year and until now had not one 100% gluten free option. Now you do.

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9 Jack July 25, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I have filed a complaint with the FTC, and will be doing other things to add to the voice.

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10 Sheryll Ziemer July 25, 2011 at 4:35 pm

I just finished posting on the FTC site….not that hard to do.
Thanks for the heads up!

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11 AmandaonMaui July 25, 2011 at 5:16 pm

The same thing can be said about the chain called “Flatbread Pizza Company.” They have locations on the east coast as well as here on Maui. They offer a “gluten free pizza crust” for an additional $7 but they bake it in the same oven as everything else, even though they put it on a special tray instead of baking it directly on the stone. They also prep it in their walk-in, but there is flour in the air and bags of flour sitting around in the dining room. I used to eat there, but when I started getting sick every time (I thought it was just a fluke, or someone messed up once or twice) I stopped going and removed my recommendation from my website.

I was just informed that they are currently looking for a local gluten free baker with a commercial kitchen to prepare the crusts for them, however, they would still be making them in the same conditions they are already making them in.

Perhaps they could also be called out on this. I spoke with the head chef here, and she explained all of the ways they attempt to prevent cross contamination, and it sounds even better than some of the chains, but I still just don’t think it’s possible for them to serve a totally gluten free pizza to anyone who actually has Celiac Disease. They could sell them to people for whom it is just a personal preference, but for those with the disease or a wheat allergy, it’s just not going to work.

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12 Effie July 25, 2011 at 6:44 pm

I ate at a CPK in San Diego and had no problems, but I called the manager before going to make sure that they preped it in it’s own part of the kitchen, used separate utensils and cooked it on a pan rather than straight on the oven surface. I warned him that if they didn’t, I would probably stop breathing in his restaurant and it would be very, very dramatic. When I got there, I reminded my server that I have deadly food allergies, as that seems to be more palatable to most people than celiac sprue, and told him everything the manager had told me they would do. And again, I let him know that if they weren’t careful, I would probably stop breathing in the restaurant. He was very nice about it, and actually came and checked on me several times throughout the meal to make sure I still hadn’t gotten sick. I got through my meal just fine, but that’s probably in large part because I made sure they knew I could DIE if they screwed up and this wasn’t just going to lead to a bit of a stomach ache or whatever they think celiac is. I’m sorry so many people have had such bad experiences, but CPK in San Diego worked out very well for me, so maybe it depends on the branch.

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13 Mary Garrard July 26, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Effie, with respect, my getting a pizza is not worth the bad karma of lying. If I can’t eat safely in a restaurant by explaining my actual needs, I won’t eat there. I think that by lying (I am going to assume that you will NOT dramatically stop breathing if you get glutened and thus you were lying) you are in fact making it harder on the next person to come along. And, how do you know that they didn’t put just a teensey bit of flour on your crust, hmmmmmmm? And then when you didn’t collapse on the floor……..

Yes, it’s hard to eat out safely, and a million times I have wished I didn’t have to explain it, again and again. I still have to explain it to some of my closest friends, who forget in between times that I need to be very vigilant. But I firmly believe that your technique does way more harm than good in the long run.

If I had a restaurant, and you came to me and told me that you would die dramatically in my restaurant if you ingested some gluten, I would respectfully decline to serve you. Because, in a restaurant that is not a dedicated gluten free facility, there is always going to be some potential, however slight, for cross-contamination.

My opinion is that CPK did exactly the right thing: they said in their disclaimer what we all know, why we ALWAYS read a label on a product we have eaten a hundred times–because the formulation might change, there might be a different supplier, etc. They should not have been pilloried for it.

[Mary: With all due respect, CPK's menu disclaimer is a separate issue. The biggest problem with what they've done in this example is target bloggers with celiac to ask for free publicity for a product they cannot guarantee is gluten-free. THAT is the big issue here. THAT's what is deceptive marketing. Know what I mean? If they had merely said "we have a wheat-free or gluten-reduced crust, that would've been fine. But for them to say they created these menu items to serve the 3 million Americans with celiac, and then not be able to deliver on that promise... and THEN, to ask people with celiac to endorse it on their blogs and in their columns is unethical. That's my biggest issue with all this. ----CB]

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14 Mary Garrard July 26, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Hi, I guess my point was that NO restaurant that serves gluten-containing items can GUARANTEE (sorry for using capitals, I’m not shouting, I just want to emphasize the words but can’t figure out how to underline instead) that they can serve a meal absolutely gluten free. There will always be a chance, however slight, that there will be cross contamination. So, I don’t think that what they did was deliberately deceptive in terms of the disclaimer, or that they were being unethical by thinking that they were providing a great service to the GF community by developing GF pizza and hoping that they could get some free publicity. Maybe I’m naive…….

I’m not a blogger, but trying to put myself in your place, instead of firing off angry posts and getting people to report CPK to the FTC, why not contact the restaurant directly to find out exactly what they do to prevent cross-contamination? Trying to turn it into an educational situation instead of a confrontation might be more useful to the GF community in the long run. Thank them for trying, suggest ways to make it truly safe. If they are as cynical as you suggest, they may not care. On the other hand, they just might be responsive and want to do the right thing.

Perhaps what CPK should have done was put out some feelers to the GF community–”we have these new products, this is how we protect from cross-contamination, what do you think” etc etc, but I myself would tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.

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15 Karen July 25, 2011 at 8:15 pm

I am so with you on this one! I had a similar experience recently at another restaurant with a number of gluten free offerings on their menu. Only problem was that most of the items marked gluten free had an asterisk after them – the asterisk meant the food was cooked IN THE SAME OIL as their regular food! As with CPK, it feels like a complete scam.

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16 Carol July 25, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Carol, I am blessed to have no food allergies (other mystery allergies and immune issues, yes, but none food related..) and I can only say THANK YOU for writing about the dangers of cross contamination. As a home cook I would never have thought that the flour in the air or a shared utensil could cause so much havoc. If I ever need to cook for someone with severe food allergies I hope that what I have learned from you will make their dinner safe and allow them to feel welcome in my home.

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17 Victoria July 25, 2011 at 10:05 pm

I am not scared by gluten-free food from kitchens that are not totally gluten-free, but pizza is one area where I have been scared to try gluten-free options. And CPK’s disclaimers was just crap. If you’re not going to make sure ALL your locations can understand how to serve people who are gluten-free, don’t say you are gluten-free.

But there needs to be an in-between of CPK’s crap and “we don’t want to serve anyone who has these problems.” You can still make your best efforts to ensure that gluten-free customers can get food they can eat safely.

It’s not hard to tell people when you are ordering food that you have a wheat allergy and can they please use a clean surface/clean untenstils/be as careful as they can with your food. I find most places more than easy enough to go along with it. If it takes longer, fine. If someone messes up and you have to re-fire something for my order, fine, I will happily wait to be safe. It is also the responsibility of the gluten-free diner to ask questions and know about how food is prepared – don’t expect your server to know everything. And if you are a chef and you need to serve gluten-free people, just ASK THEM. Talk to them and find out what you can’t use, and other things you can use. Every restaraunt in America could serve up a chocolatey gluten-free brownie (use garbanzo and fava flours) and no diner would be able to tell it was gluten-free. Keep a couple of pieces of chicken out of that soy sauce mainade in case someone with a wheat or soy allergy can’t have it. And if someone does contact you because they had a reaction – talk with them about it. Try to figure out where in the process it went wrong. We’re not looking to catch you in a lawsuit, we’d just like to know that you know what you are doing and we can eat at your place again.

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18 Rachael July 26, 2011 at 8:16 am

We don’t have CPK here in Fort Wayne, IN, but in the past year, MANY of the local pizza places have started offering a GF CRUST. That’s the key word- CRUST- and I see that CPK is working the same angle. A GF crust does not guarantee a GF pizza, as the letter you shared seems to imply.

I find it interesting that all of these places are working nearly identical sales campaigns. Even before CPK started getting all the attention, I felt like it was perhaps a supplier with this sales pitch. To me, it’s an example of the uphill battle we have ahead of us as GF is the fun new trendy diet. People who choose GF for non-medically-imperative reasons will love the gluten free CRUST options- and they bring in enough complaint-free business to keep things going- but then this acceptance of GF-casual comes at OUR expense.

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19 Vanessa Hill July 26, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Hi Carol,

You should post this on Examiner.com. Are you familiar with it? i sent an email to the FTC and to the CEO of California Pizza Kitchen.

The the person who mentioned PF Changs doing the same thing- they don’t. PF Changs has a separate prep area and uses separate utensils and dishes, condiments etc. they make me feel confortable eating there. Now if CPK could do this, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. This is what I emailed to the CEO.

Vanessa Hill
gluten free chickadee

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20 Jenn July 26, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Thank you for saying how I’ve been feeling about gluten free dining. Which is why I don’t like eating out – more stress than fun.

I just wanted to bring to your attention that Mountain Mike’s pizza chains in San Diego do gluten free pizza right. When you order, they repeat it back to you and say gluten free. They have a separate part of the kitchen for GF, as well as pans and pizza cutters. I have eaten there many times without problems.

The same can be said for Picazzo’s Organic chain in Arizona. We have to spread the word whena restaurant does it right!

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21 Living Gluten Free July 28, 2011 at 11:46 pm

Both my adult children work in commercial restaurant kitchens. Their restaurants offer gluten-free options to their guests, but both of them have told me that the food really isn’t safe for gluten intolerant persons to eat. Although their restaurants both truly want to serve the GF community, in a non-dedicated facility under regular business conditions, the chance of cross-contamination rises unacceptably high despite the best efforts of all the staff (which might in itself be a fairy tale).

Their conclusions may only apply to the restaurants they actually work in, but I have taken their words to heart. I very rarely eat out or buy prepared foods anywhere.

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22 Catherine August 3, 2011 at 9:20 pm

I was extremely excited about the prospect that I could finally go out for pizza with my boyfriend (not Celiac) and for the gluten free pizza I ordered to be so much better than any previous gluten free pizza’s I have ever had in a restaurant or from the grocery store. I asked all of the relevant questions about cross contamination and was repeatedly assured it was fine. I got sick for about 4-5 days and felt like crap. I was going to use the receipt to write about this with the information they give you on the receipt to tell how they did with the gluten free pizza but lost it. The waitress said they worked on the crust for a year and they were worried about the launch because they wanted to please customers. Although it tasted good, I don’t think I could go through feeling sick again. I always cook at home anyways.

[Oh, Catherine... I am so sorry you had to go through all this. Your comment is exactly the reason they need to be called out on this. People with celiac (and other allergies) have to trust that people are doing what they say, and then when they don't, not only do we get really sick, we also have a bit of our soul wounded because we TRUSTED someone. I'm so sorry. I hope you're feeling better. ----CB]

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23 Sam Austin August 14, 2011 at 12:56 pm

What a great way for a restaurant to ruin its reputation. Make a bunch of people sick by not fully understanding Celiac and having tell everyone about it.

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24 Lionel B August 21, 2011 at 7:26 pm

A few weeks ago I took my kids camping. We stopped at CPK on the way home. My daughter has celiacs but I keep both kids GF. My daughter was ill (vomit / stomach pains) the next day but I figured it was something she picked up while we were camping. Last night we went to CPK again and they had the gluten free pizza and my daughter was ill again
(vomiting / stomach pains)…no more CPK. She rarely reacts and we’re pretty careful and we go outback and PF Chang’s a lot with no problems at all…

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25 Jane August 27, 2011 at 11:31 pm

California Pizza Kitchen has pulled their gluten free pizza crust.
We stopped at a CPK on August 24th and were told that. We left and scrambled to find another suitable place to eat as we are on vacation.

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26 Jen September 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm

My husband just called our local CPK and was told the same thing- they have discontinued offering GF crust ‘for now’. I guess maybe they figured out that it takes more than *saying* gluten-free to *be* gluten-free. Still, I wish they could get their act together and actually offer it safely. My kids would be so happy.

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27 Kir April 29, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Not related to this, but just wanted to let everyone know that Trader Joe’s is carrying gluten-free bread, hamburger buns and bagels by a company I think is called Udi’s. Normally I stay clear of the breads, as well all know they have the consistency of a brick and taste horrible. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am! I tried the bread and it’s soft and tastes just like bread to me! I was doing the happy dance (by the way, I’m GI, not celiac). Anyway, can’t wait to try the other products they have too. Now if we could just get a regular chain of GF donut shops with yummy stuff, I will be a happy camper indeed.

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