Four men who scraped mold and fungus off of 110,000 pounds of cheese so they could resell it to customers nationwide were indicted on federal charges in Illinois on Thursday, according to a document obtained by Food Poisoning Bulletin.
The six-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury alleges that the men ignored Food and Drug Administration (FDA) orders that the cheese, which was later found to be tainted with Salmonella, E. coli ad other dangerous bacteria, be held for inspection before distribution. No illnesses were attributed to the distribution of the cheese, according to Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
In April 2007, the defendants shipped a total of 110,986 pounds of dried Mexican cheese to a facility that one of them owned, according to the indictment. The FDA placed a hold on the shipment on April 15. Five days later, an FDA inspector attempted to inspect the cheese and discovered that some of it was missing.
Two of the defendants told the inspector that the missing 311 cartons of cheese had not been sold and were at another facility. Allegedly they then arranged to put 311 unlabeled boxes form a different shipment at the second location in case the FDA inspector decided to track down the missing cheese. Despite an FDA hold order, the defendants then washed mold and fungus off the cheeses and distributed them to customers, the compliant alleges.
The defendants, Guadalupe Zurita, Miguel Leal, Cynthia Gutierrez, Baldemar Zurita , were all charged with conspiracy to violate the federal Food, Drug, and
Cosmetic Act and three counts of violating the food safety law. Leal, Gutierrez and Guadalupe Zurita, who concealed the sale of 311 cartons of cheese, were also charged with obstructing the FDA. Gutierrez and Guadalupe Zurita face the additional of submitting a false bill of lading to an FDA inspector.
Baldemar Zurita has been arrested and arraigned on charges. Leal and Gutierrez have not been arrested and will be arraigned in Federal Court on a date that has not yet been scheduled.
The conspiracy and obstruction counts carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison, each count of violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act carries a maximum of three years in prison and the obstruction count carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. The maximum fine for the six counts in the indictment is $250,000. The government is being represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Renato Mariotti.