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12/03/2010

Miami import company and its principals sentenced for smuggling and distributing contaminated food

MIAMI - The Lacteos Factory (Lacteos), a Florida corporation headquartered in Miami, and its principals, Francisca Josefina Lopez (Lopez), 40, and Jorge Alexis Ochoa-Lopez (Ochoa-Lopez), 35, both residents of Miami, pleaded guilty and were sentenced in connection with the illegal receiving, selling, and transportation of misbranded and adulterated cheese following an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Earlier today, U.S. District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan sentenced Lacteos and Lopez, whose sentence was reduced as a result of her cooperation with government authorities, to 45 days in prison, followed by five months home confinement with electronic monitoring followed by two years of supervised release. Lacteos was sentenced to five years probation. Based on information provided to the Court, the company is effectively bankrupt and unable to pay a fine. The court invited the government to return to court to propose additional special conditions of probation if it does not wind-up its business activities during that period.

Judge Jordan also sentenced co-defendantJorge Ochoa-Lopez on Nov. 17 to six months in prison followed by six months home confinement with electronic monitoring, to be followed by two years of supervised release.

"The American people expect and deserve their food supply chain to be healthy, safe and free from the manipulations of those who don't care for the health and safety of American families," said Anthony Mangione, Special Agent in Charge of ICE HSI in Miami. "ICE HSI is committed to preventing the importation of tainted food into the United States and will work to investigate and arrest those whose actions not only endanger the health and safety of our citizens, but also compromise the integrity of our food distribution systems."

On March 14, Lopez, the President and sole Director of Lacteos, imported a shipment of "Morlique Cheese" from Nicaragua. The shipment was coded for entry on documents submitted to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as "Cheese, Pasturized, Process (Standardized)," and listed a value for the 440 boxes as $81,400.00.

On March 15, FDA placed a hold on the product's entry pending an inspection, including sampling to determine if the cheese was "adulterated," and contained any poisonous or deleterious substance that might render it injurious to health. On the same date, the shipment was conditionally delivered to Lacteos pending that inspection. The defendants were aware that the product could not be distributed or sold in commerce prior to its formal release by FDA and CBP. On March 18, FDA Consumer Safety Officers inspected the cheese and took samples for testing. Ochoa Lopez was present for the inspection and identified himself as the manager of Lacteos.

On April 12, the FDA District Laboratory in Atlanta reported the presence of bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus) in the samples taken from the shipment, demonstrating that the cheese was not in fact pasteurized as claimed on the entry documents. Based on the test results, that shipment was refused entry into the United States. At that time, the defendants were required to either destroy the shipment under federal supervision or re-export the shipment. However, the defendants had already sold the cheese and tried to fool inspectors into believing that the shipment was being returned to Nicaragua. To that end, they filled the boxes with pails of waste water and other materials to simulate the proper weight of the shipment.

On April 15, based on information learned during the investigation, federal agents from FDA and ICE, assisted by Miami-Dade Police Department officers executed a search warrant at Lacteos. The 440 boxes of cheese under FDA hold was not present at the facility. Records seized and statements by employees revealed that the product had been illegally sold in intrastate and interstate commerce. The investigation also identified three other shipments that were illegally diverted into commerce, despite FDA holds, and also being tainted with Staphylococcus aureus (Staph). Staph infections can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, headache and muscle cramping. The greatest health risk is to the very young, the very old, and those with compromised immune systems.

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer stated, "The defendants jeopardized the health of their customers, both locally and across the United States, for their own financial benefit. Such conduct is inexcusable. We will continue to aggressively enforce federal laws that seek to protect the American public from the risks posed by contaminated and adulterated food."

"Safeguarding the nation's food supply, whether from foreign or domestic sources, remains a priority mission for FDA," said David W. Bourne, special agent in charge of FDA-OCI's Miami Field Office. "We will continue to partner with the United States Attorney's Office and ICE to pursue and hold accountable those who seek to circumvent the regulatory and inspection process by introducing unsafe products into our nation's commerce."

The investigation was conducted by ICE's Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, and the Miami-Dade Police Department, Medical Crimes Unit.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald.