The federal government’s new emphasis on food safety was recently revealed in two ways through litigation against a Mobile Bay seafood company. First, food safety risks created by the company’s actions are getting a longer and more thorough discussion in complaints filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Second, the time lag between DOJ filing requests for permanent injunctions and federal judges granting them is getting shorter.

The BEK Catering LLC facility in Daphne, AL.
Take the government’s action against BEK Catering LLC, doing business as Floppers Foods LLC in Daphne, AL. This past Friday, just before the Fourth of July weekend, DOJ filed a complaint for permanent injunction against BEK. When the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama opened for business on Tuesday, a federal judge signed the consent decree for permanent injunction. The order, signed by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Callie V.S. Granade, prevents the distribution of adulterated and misbranded seafood products. The order applies to BEK co-owners Billy B. Stembridge and Kyle D. Huxen and their associates. The DOJ filed the court action at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Stembridge is a co-owner of BEK Catering and serves as the firm’s managing partner, according to court documents. He has ultimate authority over all of the firm’s operations, including major financial expenditures, production processes, product distribution and employee supervision. Huxen is also a co-owner of BEK Catering and is responsible for the company’s compliance with FDA’s seafood processing regulations and training new employees. He shares responsibility with Stembridge for the firm’s operations. According to the complaint, BEK Catering prepares, processes, packs, holds and distributes ready-to-eat seafood products, namely seafood soups sold under the names Shrimp Locksley and Mama’s Gumbo. The complaint alleged that the defendants caused food to become adulterated and misbranded. “Adulterated and misbranded seafood products can create serious health risks for consumers,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to work aggressively with the FDA to ensure a safe food supply.” BEK, represented by Daphne attorney Steven Paul Savarese Jr., agreed to settle the litigation and be bound by the injunction. As part of the settlement, the defendants said they are no longer engaged in the processing, packing or holding of fish and fishery products from any location, except for activities incidental to product transport and delivery. Under the permanent injunction, if the defendants intend to resume processing, packing or holding fish or fishery products at or from any location, beyond activities incidental to transporting and delivering product, they must notify FDA in writing 90 days in advance. They would also be required to comply with specific remedial measures set forth in the injunction, and be subject to FDA inspection. In the complaint, government attorneys focused on the risks of Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium perfringens, and Listeria monocytogenes, along with food allergens and certain food and color additives. The complaint details the toxic risks and states that seafood processors must take action to control them. The company’s food became adulterated in that it was prepared, packed or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health, the complaint states. FDA has conducted five inspections of BEK Catering’s various manufacturing facilities dating back to 2011, and during each inspection, inspectors found similar types of insanitary conditions and repeated violations of seafood Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) regulations and current Good Manufacturing Practices regulations. For example, according to the complaint, during a 2015 inspection, FDA determined that the defendants failed to have adequate control over the risk of C. botulium and C. perfringens growth and toxin formation, failed to have adequate control over the risk of L. monocytogenes growth, and failed to have adequate control over the hazards posed by major food allergens and food additives. Clostridium botulinum is a bacterium that forms spores capable of producing a potent neurotoxin in food. People are susceptible to C. botulinum’s neurotoxin, and ingestion of even a small amount of the neurotoxin can cause botulism poisoning. Although the incidence of botulism is rare, the disease can cause paralysis and has a high mortality rate if treatment is not prompt and appropriate. Clostridium perfringen is a bacterium that causes foodborne illness. High doses of this bacterium can form a toxin in the digestive tract that results in illness. People can be sickened by the C. perfringens toxin, which causes diarrhea and abdominal cramps and can produce more severe symptoms in the young and elderly. Listeria monocytogenes is the bacterium that causes listeriosis, a disease commonly contracted by eating food contaminated with it. Listeriosis can be serious, even fatal, for vulnerable groups such as newborns and people with impaired immune systems. The most serious forms of listeriosis can result in meningitis and septicemia. Pregnant women may contract flu-like symptoms from listeriosis, and complications from the disease can result in miscarriage, or a life-threatening infection in the newborn. The government was represented by Melanie Singh of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch, with the assistance of Senior Chief Counsel Claudia Zuckerman of the Food and Drug Division, Office of General Counsel, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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