CHICAGO (CN) - Federal prosecutors accuse four people of conspiring to "wash" and redistribute 55 tons of salmonella-contaminated Mexican cheese, scraping off mold and fungus so it could be resold, then lying about it.
The six-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury does not allege that anyone got sick from the cheese, which was contaminated by salmonella, e. coli and "other illness-causing bacteria," the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
Charged were Guadalupe Zurita, 42, of Villahermosa, Mexico; Miguel Leal, 47, of Monroe, Wisc.; Cynthia Gutierrez, 37, of Cicero; and Baldemar Zurita, 39, of Chicago.
The dry, hard cheese, sold under the name Queso Cincho de Guerrero, was imported from Mexico in 35- and 40-pound wheels, prosecutors said. It was distributed from facilities in Elmhurst, Ill. and Darlington, Wisc.
Leal owned "Company A," of Darlington and Elmhurst, until he sold it to "Company B," of Mexico, in July 2007, prosecutors said. Gutierrez was Company A's finance and operations manager, and Guadalupe Zurita owned and operated "Company C;" his brother Baldemar worked for the company.
Prosecutors said in a statement that the defendants conspired to "'wash' cheese returned by dissatisfied Company A customers by scraping off mold and fungus so that it could be resold to Company A's customers, and to cover up their distribution of the cheese by lying to a FDA inspector and by creating and sending a false document to the FDA."
According to the indictment, the defendants "falsely told the FDA inspector that 311 cartons of cheese were not sold and distributed to customers but were, in fact, in Company A's Darlington plant. ... [The defendants] agreed to place 311 boxes of phony stand-in cheese in Company A's Darlington plant with no labels in case the FDA inspector arrived at the plant looking for the 311 boxes from the April shipment that had already been sold and distributed by Company A."
Guadalupe Zurita and Gutierrez are also accused of creating "a false bill of lading which indicated that the 311 boxes of cheese that were already sold and distributed to customers were, in fact, in Company A's Darlington plant," and sending the document to the FDA.
The defendants are charged with conspiring to violate the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and obstruction an FDA investigation. If convicted, they face prison terms ranging from 5 to 20 years.
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