Four indicted in US over alleged mouldy cheese conspiracy

By Mark Astley

- Last updated on GMT

Four individuals who allegedly conspired to scrape mould off returned imported cheese before resale have been indicted in the US on charges that could see them jailed for up to 20 years.

The allegations relate to the distribution of more than 110,000 pounds of dried Mexican cheese by two companies in the US, despite Food and Drug Administration (FDA) orders that the product be held for inspection.

Of the shipments, which were distributed to retail stores in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Georgia and Texas under the brand name Queso Cicho De Guerrero, one was later found to be contaminated with Salmonella, E.coli and Staphylococcus.

The US Department of Justice (USDOJ) charged all four defendants with conspiracy to illegally distribute the cheese, conspiracy to cover up the distribution by lying to an FDA inspector and sending a false document to the agency.

All four defendants were also charged with conspiring to “wash” ​returned cheese by scrapping off mould and fungus before resale.

Facing prison

US authorities issued warrants for the arrest of four individuals, including Guadalupe Zurita, who owns the Illinois-based importer referred to in the indictment as Company C and his brother, Baldemar Zurita, who was employed by the company.

Miguel Leal, president and owner of the company that produced cheese at the plant in Darlington, Wisconsin (referred to as Company A) was also cited in the indictment, along with the firm’s finance and operations manager Cynthia Gutierrez.

“All four defendants were charged with conspiring to illegally distribute the cheese, to ‘wash’ cheese returned by dissatisfied customers by scrapping off mould and fungus so that it could be resold, and to cover up their distribution of the cheese by lying to an FDA inspector and by creating and sending a false document to the food safety agency,” ​said a USDOJ statement.

Leal, Gutierrez and Guadalupe Zurita were charged with obstructing the FDA for allegedly concealing the distribution of 311 boxes of cheese.

The count of conspiracy and the one of FDA obstruction counts carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison, while each violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act carries a maximum of three years.

Gutierrez and Guadalupe Zurita were also charged with obstructing the FDA by filing a false report, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Contaminated cheese

According to the indictment document, the Company C shipped 33,924 pounds of dried Mexican cheese to the Company A’s Darlington, Wisconsin plant in April 2007.

An additional 37,772 pounds were shipped in May 2007 and 39,290 pounds in June 2007 – totalling 110,986 pounds.

On 15 April 2007, the FDA placed a hold on Company C’s first shipment with a view to inspecting the shipment on 20 April, at which point it discovered some cheese missing. The USDOJ alleges that 311 cartons of the cheese had already been shipped despite the FDA order.

The indictment also alleges that Baldemar Zurita and Gutierrez falsely told the FDA that the missing cartons were not sold but were, instead, at Company C’s Darlington plant – where Guadalupe Zurita and Leal allegedly arranged to place 311 stand-in boxes of cheese.

Leal and Gutierrez then allegedly distributed the remainder of the April 2007 shipment – despite FDA orders to hold it. The status of the April shipment was later changed to ‘detained’ after tests found the cheese contained Salmonella, E.coli and Staphylococcus.

Hold order were later placed on the May and June shipment. Their status was later upgraded to ‘detained’, then ‘refused’. Despite this, Leal and Gutierrez allegedly distributed the shipments.

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