Universal Cheese & Drying and International Packing pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to introduce misbranded and adulterated cheese products into interstate commerce and to commit money laundering.
In the other case, Roos Foods pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and was sentenced to pay a fine of $100,000.
The firm and its owners, Ana A. Roos and Virginia Mejia, agreed to a consent decree of permanent injunction which was entered in January this year.
Universal Cheese & Drying and International Packing agreed to pay $500,000.
Michelle Myrter, Castle Cheese Company executive, pleaded guilty as a responsible corporate officer to one misdemeanor count of aiding and abetting the introduction of adulterated and misbranded cheese products into interstate commerce, in violation of the FDCA.
The corporate defendants packaged and sold cheese under various labels at the Castle Cheese facility in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania which was distributed through retail, food service, and wholesale customers in the US.
FDA issued a warning letter in 2013 to Castle Cheese Company following an inspection in 2012.
“We acknowledge your response to the Form FDA-483, dated December 21, 2012, which states that your previous plant manager was responsible for the substitution of ingredients without authorization, and that this individual’s employment with your firm was terminated in September 2012.
“On November 14, 2012, our investigators asked Mr. George L. Myrter, CEO and co-owner if he was aware that the firm is substituting a mixture of different cheese products and/or imitation cheese products for real cheese. Mr Myrter acknowledged that he was.”
FDA said International Packing Parmesan Cheese, Romano 100% Grated Cheese, and 100% Grated Parmesan Cheese products were mislabelled as they were a mixture of trimmings of various cheeses and other ingredients and the parmesan cheese products did not contain any parmesan cheese.
The agency added the firm used cellulose and/or starch to increase weight of the cheese base used to manufacture products.
Defendants had knowledge of the regulations and standards of identity for parmesan and romano cheese and were aware products did not conform but represented to customers that they contained 100% real parmesan and romano cheese.
They used proceeds from the sale of the misbranded and adulterated cheese to continue the operation of the manufacturing and packaging at the facility, said the DOJ.
Adulterated romano and parmesan products were sold under several brand names, the owners of which were unaware of the fraud, and did not pose a health or safety risk, added the agency.
Sentencing will be at a later date but for the individual defendant, the law provides for one year in prison, a fine of $100,000, or both.
Action against Roos
Meanwhile, the criminal charge and civil complaint against Roos alleges it distributed cheese connected to a 2014 outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes (L. mono).
The firm distributed and sold ready-to-eat cheese, including ricotta, queso fresco and fresh cheese curd to wholesale customers in Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington D.C.
Cheese produced by Roos Foods was linked to an outbreak of L. mono that sickened eight people in 2013 with the investigation continuing into 2014. Seven people were hospitalized and one death was reported in California.
The FDA suspended the facility’s registration in March 2014 , which barred them from introducing food into interstate commerce and it has not reopened.
“The department of Justice will use all of the tools available to us – criminal and civil – to ensure that the food we buy is free from dangerous bacteria and is safe to eat,” said Benjamin Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.