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Four indicted in Chicago for ‘washing,’ reselling moldy cheese

Wheel Queso Cincho De Guerrero.

Wheel of Queso Cincho De Guerrero.

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Updated: May 21, 2012 8:52AM

Four people were charged Thursday with allegedly “washing” 110,000 pounds of bad Mexican cheese by scraping off mold and fungus from the product and then sending it off to retailers.

After retailers returned the cheese to the companies, complaining that they couldn’t sell it because customers said the cheese was slimy and moldy — the men are accused of scraping off the bad parts and sending it off to be sold again.

In all, more than 110,000 pounds of tainted Mexican cheese was shipped out in 2007.

A recall was issued in September 2007 for Queso Cincho de Guerrero, a dry, hard Mexican cheese, sold in 35- and 40-pound wheels.

The FDA took samples of the cheese and determined that they contained salmonella. E.coli and other bacteria.

Among the accusations against the men: that they distributed cheese that the FDA ordered be held for inspection.

Public records tie the four to two companies — Quesos Sabrosos Mexicanos and Mexican Cheese Producers, lnc.

Baldemar Zurita, 39 of Chicago, was arrested Thursday and appeared in federal court. He pleaded not guilty to charges that Assistant U.S. Attorney Renato Mariotti described as a conspiracy that included three others.

Also charged was Zurita’s brother, Guadalupe Zurita, 42, of Villahermosa Mexico, who owned Quesos Sabrosos Mexicanos. The company imported Mexican specialty cheese and dried Mexican peppers from Villahermosa.

The government issued a warrant for Zurita.

Also charged was Miguel Leal, 47, of Monroe, Wis., who was president and owner of Mexican Cheese Producers, Inc. and Cynthia Gutierrez, 37, of Cicero who was the finance and operations manager at Mexican Cheese Producers.

They are accused of trying to hide what they were doing by lying to inspectors from the federal Food and Drug Administration and sending false documents to the agency.

In 2007, the FDA recalled Queso Cincho de Guerrero produced by “Quesos Sabrosos” which was distributed in Indiana, Michigan, Georgia, Texas, and Illinois in retail stores.

“It has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella, an organism which can cause serious ... infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems,” the FDA said at the time.

The government did not make any allegation that people became ill because of the cheese.

The government said the criminal investigation into the alleged illegal distribution of adulterated cheese started after the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs alerted the FDA’s criminal section, saying they believed they were lied to.

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