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DA: Charges In Cheese-Linked Epidemic Warns Other Food Companies

March 28, 1986

BELLFLOWER, Calif. (AP) _ Criminal charges against a company that made cheese blamed for at least 39 deaths last year should warn food makers they will be held accountable for tainted products, a prosecutor says.

Los Angeles County prosecutors filed a 60-count misdemeanor complaint Thursday against Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., president Gary McPherson and vice president Jose Luis Medina. The complaint alleged violations of California agriculture, health and safety codes.

Medina pleaded no contest to 12 counts in a plea bargain in which prosecutors agreed not to pursue the 48 other counts or seek a sentence beyond a year in prison and $12,000 in fines, said Cliff Klein, a deputy district attorney.

Medina, 45, who ran pasteurization and overall operations at the plant, was released on his own recognizance pending a May 20 court appearance at which he could be sentenced.

The company and McPherson, both named in all 60 counts, will be arraigned April 9 in Los Angeles Municipal Court in Bellflower, where the charges were filed. Roger Rosen, lawyer for McPherson and Jalisco, said no decision has been made on their pleas.

The charges stem from an epidemic of the bacterial disease listeriosis, which was revealed by health officials June 13 and prompted permanent closure of the Jalisco factory in Artesia and a nationwide recall of its soft, Mexican-style cheeses.

″Shortcuts and inadequate safety precautions″ occurred during Jalisco’s cheese-making process, said Tom Papageorge, head of the district attorney’s consumer protection division.

″We view this (complaint) as an important way of sending a message to food producers in California that they may be held criminally liable for adulterated food products,″ he added.

State health department figures show that during the epidemic, listeriosis sickened 159 Californians and killed another 84. Tests definitively linked 39 of the deaths to Jalisco cheese tainted with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. Officials say they believe the cheese was responsible for more of the deaths.

Most of those killed were unborn or stillborn fetuses or newborn babies, almost all Hispanic.

Nationwide death and illness figures weren’t compiled, but officials have said about 80 percent of the Jalisco-related listeriosis cases occurred in California.

Papageorge’s office filed suit Thursday in Superior Court against all three defendants. The suit seeks an injunction against further violations as well as unspecified costs for the investigation and litigation by various agencies.

Papageorge said the lawsuit would be held in abeyance until the criminal case was complete.

Medina entered his plea to 10 counts of manufacture and sale of adulterated food, one count each of operating an unsanitary food establishment and improperly hooking up fluid lines in the cheese factory.

McPherson and his company each were charged with 19 counts of manufacture and sale of adulterated food; 19 counts of sale and delivery of adulterated milk products; nine counts of making and selling cheese with cottonseed oil, an illegal ingredient; five counts of possession of unpasteurized cheese; and eight counts of other state code violations.

Most of the misdemeanor charges carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, but Klein said those penalties cannot be served consecutively.

A search warrant served on Jalisco last June said there was probable cause for manslaughter charges, based on an audit that indicated Jalisco received more raw milk than its equipment could pasteurize.

But Papageorge said manslaughter charges weren’t filed because ″critical elements of a felony case weren’t present.″

To sustain manslaughter charges, prosecutors needed to prove the bacteria that tainted the cheese and killed the victims was present in the raw milk, and that the misdemeanors were committed intentionally, Klein said.

The source of the bacteria in the cheese was never proved, although health and agriculture officials concluded in December that raw milk used to make the cheese most likely was responsible, coupled with failure or bypassing of Jalisco’s pasteurization process.

Ken Sabo, Medina’s lawyer, denied any raw milk was used to make the cheese.

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