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South Florida produce firm and owners plead guilty to charges related to the importation of produce contaminated with illegal pesticides

MIAMI - Two business owners of a South Florida produce firm pleaded guilty to charges related to the importation of produce contaminated with illegal pesticides following a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigation.

On Dec. 22, 2008, Fresh King Inc., a produce importer and distributor based in Homestead, Florida, its owner/President, Denisse Serge, 53, and Peter Schnebly, 47, also part owner of FKI and a former salesman, pleaded guilty to charges related to the importation of produce contaminated with illegal pesticides before the Honorable Ursula Ungaro, United States District Court Judge.

FKI and Serge plead guilty to felony charges that they conspired with others to smuggle snow peas and sugar snap peas originating from Guatemala that could be or would be contaminated with illegal pesticide residues; that they entered and introduced such produce into U.S. commerce by means of false and fraudulent invoices, declarations, and papers; that they knowingly and willfully made materially false statements and used materially false documents concerning such produce; and that they introduced and delivered for introduction into interstate commerce, the snow peas and sugar snap peas, that were adulterated and misbranded, with the intent to defraud and mislead consumers. Schnebly pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of introducing and delivering for introduction into interstate commerce the snow peas and sugar snap peas that were adulterated and misbranded.

As part of their plea agreements, FKI and Serge each agreed to the forfeiture of a $375,000 money judgment, and FKI agreed to payment of a $100,000 criminal fine, including a $50,000 community service payment to the Florida Environmental Task Force Trust Fund (FETF). Earlier today, FKI made full payment of the $375,000 forfeiture and the $100,000 criminal fine. Furthermore, the plea agreement requires FKI to complete and abide by the terms of a Pesticide Safety Compliance Plan.

"Protecting the integrity of the food supply of the United States is one of ICE's most important responsibilities," said Anthony Mangione, special agent in charge of ICE's Office of Investigations in Miami. "The American public expects the food that reaches their homes to be safe to feed their families and ICE will do everything in its power to prevent the importation of tainted food that poses a health and safety risk to our consumers and arrest those who attempt to bring these products into the United States."

Judge Ungaro set sentencing for all defendants for March 27, 2009 at 2:00 p.m. FKI could receive a sentence of up to 5 years probation and a $500,000 criminal fine. Serge is facing a potential sentence of up to 5 years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine and Schnebly is facing a potential sentence of up to 1 year imprisonment and a $100,000 fine.

circumvented the FDA automatic hold and testing process for snow peas and sugar snap peas originating from Guatemala by conspiring with other individuals including sample collectors. These sample collectors conducted biased and rigged samples from distinctly marked and sized produce boxes believed to contain produce free of illegal residues of the pesticides methamidophos and chlorothalonil, as opposed to random samples from throughout the shipment of produce boxes.

The defendants and their co-conspirators would evade detection of illegal residues of methamidophos and chlorothalonil during the course of the FDA automatic detention and testing process. Additionally, in the course of this process, Serge and other FKI employees knowingly participated in directing the sampler to conduct samples from the distinctly marked and sized boxes believed to contain pesticide-free produce so as to facilitate evasion of the FDA's testing requirements.

This conduct allegedly began in 2000 and after a federal search warrant at the premises of FKI in 2003, the defendants continued to import snow peas and sugar snaps which could be or would be contaminated with illegal pesticide residues in circumvention of the FDA automatic hold and testing process. They did this by utilizing nominees as the purported owners, purchasers and importers of the subject produce, which was actually owned, purchased, imported, and ultimately distributed by FKI. Several of these nominee owners and purchasers have previously pleaded guilty to similar conspiracy charges.

"Individuals who seek to circumvent the safety standards put in place to protect consumers must answer for their criminal conduct," stated United States Attorney R. Alexander Acosta. "We will continue our efforts to work with law enforcement to ensure that this type of conduct does not occur."

Mr. Acosta commended the investigative efforts of ICE, United States Department of Agriculture, Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG), USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Investigative and Enforcement Services, (USDA-APHIS-IES), and the United States Food and Drug Administration, Office of Criminal Investigations in Miami (FDA-OCI).

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jose A. Bonau of the Economic and Environmental Crimes Section, and Trial Attorney Roger Gural of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Consumer Litigation.

Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at www.flsd.uscourts.gov http://www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.