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ICE and FDA arrest couple in contaminated food case

MIAMI - Francisca Josefina Lopez, 40, and Jorge Alexis Ochoa Lopez, 34, both of Honduras, were arrested Friday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) special agents along with the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) on a criminal complaint charging them with introducing adulterated food products into interstate commerce.

According to the allegations, Lopez and Ochoa imported four shipments of cheese from Nicaragua between Dec. 2009 and March 2010, with a declared value of more than $322,000. According to testing conducted by FDA district laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia, three of the four shipments were contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus, and the fourth shipment violated standards applicable to phosphatase, indicating the cheese was not pasteurized as declared on the relevant customs import paperwork.

The FDCA states a food is deemed to be adulterated, among other reasons, if it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health. The Act prohibits causing the introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of an adulterated food.

Felony convictions under the FDCA carry possible sentences of up to three years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for each violation. Violations of the anti-smuggling statute carry possible sentences of up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for each violation, and forfeiture of the smuggled goods.

The defendants are alleged to have operated from a company known as The Lacteos Factory, at 1414 Northwest 23rd Street in Miami. All four shipments, totaling more than 170,000 pounds, were refused entry into the United States, and were subsequently ordered destroyed or re-exported.

On April 1, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspected a cargo container at the Port of Miami, which had been returned to the seaport from Lacteos with documents to reflect the contents were the first refused shipment being re-exported.

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 411 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 thirty customers, despite still being on hold.

It was also determined that one customer conducted independent testing of the cheese, found it to be contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus and returned the product. Despite that, the cheese was repackaged and sold to other customers.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald.