The owner of Oasis Brands, Inc., a Florida cheese company, was sentenced to 15 months in prison on November 15, 2016. Christian Rivas was sent to prison for distributing contaminated cheese that was associated with a Listeria monocytogenes outbreak in 2014 that sickened five people in four states.
U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. sentenced Mr. Rivas with “the intent to defraud and mislead, delivered cheese processed and packed at the Oasis facility into interstate commerce that was “adulterated . . . in that it contained lysteria monocytogenes (“listeria”) a deleterious substance, which may render the food injurious to health.”
The outbreak investigation and whole genome sequencing of the Listeria monocytogenes isolated from the recalled Oasis quesito casero cheese found it was highly related to Listeria strains isolated from one person who got sick in September 2013 and four others who got sick June through October 2014. Four of those patients were hospitalized. One death was reported in Tennessee. And three of those illnesses were related to a pregnancy.
Quesito casero is a type of unnamed soft cheese made from pasteurized milk. Oasis recalled their cheeses on August 4, 2014, and expanded that recall on October 6, 2014 and October 16, 2014. Oasis also recalled cuajada en hoja, Lacteos Santa Martha, and one HonduCrema brand cheese products in October 2014. Environmental samples at the production facility collected by public health officials yielded Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.
Rivas admitted in a plea agreement that he intentionally sold cheese that he knew was contaminated with the pathogenic bacteria after he told federal officials that he would stop distribution. He was sentenced on one felony count and a misdemeanor count.
U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a statement, “Consumer protection is a top priority for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The Southern District of Florida will continue to work with the FDA to identify for prosecution cases where consumers are exposed to the risk of serious harm from contaminated food purchased in the marketplace, while being fraudulently led to believe that it is safe.” Justin D. Green, Special Agent in Charge, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations’ Miami Field Office added, “U.S. consumers rely on the FDA to ensure that the food they eat is safe and wholesome. We will continue to pursue and bring to justice those who put the public’s health at risk by allowing contaminated foods to enter the U.S. marketplace.”
The investigation into the deadly outbreak began when the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services alerted the FDA to their findings that cheese supplied by Oasis had been randomly sampled on July 26, 2014 and tested positive for Listeria. The FDA inspected the Oasis processing facility and found “numerous failures to comply with current Good Manufacturing Practice federal regulatory standards.”
After that initial inspection, Rivas agreed to suspend manufacturing of new cheese products, hire a consultant to help clean the facility, stop distribution of food until a laboratory could confirm that the cheeses and facility tested negative for Listeria, and place all in-process product on hold until he had more discussions with FDA officials. The FDA conducted follow up inspections from October 7 through December 16, 2014 and collected product samples; one sample tested positive for Listeria.
But Rivas then packaged and shipped multiple trays of cheese from September 24 through October 1, 2014 in direct violation of his agreement with the FDA. Rivas knew from results from his testing laboratory that some of those cheeses he was shipping had tested positive for Listeria bacteria, according to court documents.