Two Hondurans were arrested by federal agents today for allegedly importing more than 170,000 pounds of cheese contaminated with dangerous bacteria that could quickly cause food poisoning.
Special agents from the Food and Drug Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement charged Francisca Josefina Lopez and Jorge Alexis Ochoa Lopez with introducing four shipments of adulterated or tainted food products into interstate commerce.
The cheese, valued at $322,000 was imported from Nicaragua between December 2009 and March 2010, said a statement by the FDA.
Testing in the large FDA laboratory in Atlanta documented that three of the four shipments were contaminated with a food pathogen called Staphylococcus aureus. The fourth shipment was not pasteurized as the importers claimed on customs paperwork.
The onset of Staphylococcal food poisoning can be very rapid, the FDA says, depending on individual susceptibility to the toxin, the amount of contaminated food eaten, and the general health of the victim.
The defendants operated from a company known as The Lacteos Factory in Northwest Miami and reportedly developed an elaborate scam to conceal the hazardous cheese.
On April 1, 2010, Customs & Border Protection inspected a cargo container at the Port of Miami, which had been returned to the seaport from Lacteos, with documents stating the cheese was refused and was being returned to Central America.
CBP Inspectors discovered that the top layer of cartons on each pallet contained small bricks of cheese as labeled, but the bulk of the cargo contained in the lower tiers of boxes contained only buckets of waste water. As a result, the majority of the four-hundred eleven cartons of cheese from the entry were missing
Subsequently, a search warrant was executed at the Lacteos Factory, which revealed that the three other shipments of the cheese product had been sold to over 30 customers, despite the food still being under customs hold, which meant the cheese could not be legally sold.
Apparently, one customer conducted independent testing of the cheese, found it to be contaminated with the bacteria and returned the product. Despite that, the cheese was repackaged and sold to other customers.
The Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act states a food is deemed to be adulterated if, among other reasons, it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health.
Felony convictions under the FDA law carry possible sentences of up to three years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for each violation. In addition, if the pair is convicted of the anti-smuggling violations, they will also face a sentence of up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for each violation, and forfeiture of the smuggled goods.