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Miami cheese company owner draws 15-month prison term

Tuesday, November 15, 2016 23:25
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The owner of Miami-based cheese company Oasis Brands Inc. is the most recent company executive to be sentenced for criminal violations related to pathogen-contaminated food linked to a deadly outbreak.

U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola Jr. sentenced Christian Rivas on Monday to serve a total of 15 months in federal prison. Rivas negotiated a plea agreement in recent weeks, admitting he intentionally sold cheese he knew was contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes after he promised federal authorities he would cease distribution.

Rivas joins other food industry executives sentenced to federal prison on criminal counts related to outbreaks. Those cases include:

  • Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster sentenced in the Quality Egg case related to a 2010 Salmonella outbreak; and
  • Stewart Parnell and his brother Michael Parnell, along with Mary Wilkerson, sentenced in the Peanut Corporation of America case related to an E. coli outbreak.

The judge ordered that Rivas can serve his sentences of 15 months on a felony count and 12 months on a misdemeanor count concurrently. Each count carries a one-year period of supervised release, which will also be served concurrently. Rivas, who is released on bond, must surrender himself by noon Dec. 20 to begin serving his time.

Even though Rivas admitted to knowingly shipping contaminated food after agreeing to stop distribution, the Department of Justice recommended reduced sentencing because of “defendant’s recognition and affirmative and timely acceptance of personal responsibility.”

Having reserved action on possible restitution, Judge Scola set a hearing for Feb. 3, 2017, to consider the possibility. He could have fined Rivas $250,000 on each of the two counts, but the judge did not impose a fine, according to court documents.

In his plea agreement, Rivas agreed there were more than 10 victims, but the term victim was not defined.

At least five people were sickened, including one who died, in the Listeria outbreak traced to Oasis Brand cheeses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The link between the soft, Mexican-style cheese from Oasis Brand and the sick people was discovered because of a random sampling program in Virginia. State officials collected a sample of Oasis brand cheese from a grocery store in Virginia in July 2014 and it tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

A subsequent investigation including the CDC, Food and Drug Administration and officials in several states found the outbreak strain of Listeria in additional Oasis Brand cheeses and at its production facility.

Oasis Brand Inc. issued a series of three recalls for various cheeses from August through October 2014. One after the Virginia finding and two more after Rivas had told FDA inspectors he had stopped shipping product.

“At the close of the first inspection on August 22, 2014, Rivas agreed to do the following: (1) suspend manufacturing of new cheese products; (2) hire a consultant to inform the firm how to clean its facility; (3) stop distribution of finished food products in its inventory until a laboratory (retained by Oasis at its cost) could confirm that Oasis’ cheese products and its facility were negative for listeria; and (4) place all in-process product which was in the process of being manufactured or packaged and on the verge of distribution on hold until further discussions with FDA officials,” according to a Tuesday news release from the office of the U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

“From Oct. 7 through Dec. 16, 2014, the FDA conducted a follow-up inspection at the Oasis facility and collected product samples of ‘Lacteos Santa Martha Cuajada en Hoja Fresh Curd,’ then in storage at the facility, one of which later tested positive for listeria.

“The court record indicates that subsequent to the first inspection and during the period Sept. 24, 2014, through Oct. 1, 2014, Rivas had, in violation of his agreement with the FDA, finished packaging multiple trays of cheese then held in-processing and had gone on to ship and distribute these items. …

“Rivas had initiated these shipments after he had learned from his testing laboratory, on Sept. 24, 2014, that a sample of this same product had tested positive for the presence of listeria.”

According to the CDC, the outbreak traced to the Oasis Brand cheese sickened people in Georgia, New York, Tennessee and Texas. Three of the illnesses were related to pregnancy, with one newborn diagnosed with Listeria infection.

“All ill persons were reported to be of Hispanic ethnicity and reported consuming Hispanic-style soft cheese,” according to the CDC. “Two persons who were able to answer questions about specific varieties of Hispanic-style soft cheeses reported consuming quesito casero, though neither could remember the brand.”

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