A federal grand jury in Chicago has returned a six-count indictment against four individuals, alleging they were involved in a 2007 scheme to ship more than 110,000 pounds of contaminated Mexican-style cheese.
The indictment does not claim that the cheese caused human illnesses or other public health consequences, according to Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. But lab analysis of the cheese showed it was adulterated with Salmonella, E. coli and other illness-causing bacteria, Fitzgerald said.
The conspiracy was complex. One defendant owned an Illinois company that imported the dried Mexican cheese to the U.S., and another defendant owned a Wisconsin company with a facility in suburban Elmhurst, IL that distributed cheese to customers nationwide.
The indictment charges all four defendants with illegally distributing cheese, which had been returned by dissatisfied customers, after scraping off mold and fungus so it could be resold. They are also charged with lying to inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by creating and sending the federal food agency false documentation.
From the Elmhurst facility, the cheese was distributed to retail stores in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Georgia and Texas under the Queso Cincho De Guerrero brand name. It was sold in 35 and 40 pound blocks. The dry hard Mexican cheese was the subject of a recall in September 2007.
Federal agents arrested Baldemar Zurita, 39, of Chicago Thursday morning. His brother, Guadalupe Zurita, 42, owned the importing company. He now resides in Mexico and a warrant is being issued for his arrest.
Miguel Leal, 47 of Monroe, WS and Cynthia Gutierrez, 37, of Cicero, IL were not arrested, and will be arraigned at a later date in federal court. Leal owned the Wisconsin company and Gutierrez was its finance and operations manager at the Elmhurst facility.
All four defendants are charged with conspiracy to violate the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by introducing adulterated cheese into interstate commerce and three counts of violating food safety law.
Leal, Gutierrez and Guadalupe Zurita are charged with obstructing the FDA for allegedly concealing the sale and distribution of 311 boxes of dried Mexican cheese. Gutierrez and Guadalupe Zurita are also charged with obstructing FDA for allegedly making a false bill of lading referencing the 311 boxes and submitting the document to an inspector.
FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs suspected it was being lied to and alerted the agency’s Office of Criminal Investigations in Chicago, which is running the investigation.
Daniel L. Henson, OCI’s special agent in charge in Chicago, credited the joint effort of regulatory affairs and the criminal unit with the indictments.
Fitzgerald said that while no one was harmed, enforcement of food safety laws by FDA is “imperative” and his office will continue to “partner with them to do so vigorously.”
The 15-page indictment spells out details of a story involving Mexican cheese being distributed into interstate commerce after FDA placed a hold on it, and an alleged cover up after samples taken by government inspectors were found to contain Salmonella, E. coli, Staphylococcus.
At that point, FDA changed its “hold” on the cheese to detainment, not knowing it was still being distributed throughout the U.S. Cheese returned by customer was “washed” to remove mold and fungus and resold, the indictment alleges.
An indictment is a charge that still must be proven at a trial in which the burden of proving guilt beyond a reason doubt is on the government. If convicted, the defendants could face lengthy jail terms and fines up to $250,000.
Cheese image from the FDA