Food fraud: Brazil bored bureaucrat mob-influenced version

Federal authorities announced Friday they’re investigating evidence that companies including JBS SA and BRF SA, the nation’s largest meat producers, bribed government officials to approve the sale and export of soiled meat. Federal police served hundreds of court orders, including more than 30 detention warrants, in what local media says is the largest police operation in the country’s history.

Police released transcripts of recorded conversations showing how agricultural inspectors were bribed, sometimes in the form of prime cuts of beef. It’s alleged that some of the meat, including sausages and cold cuts, was adulterated with ingredients including pig heads, and that suspect smells were masked by applying acid. Inspectors who refused to comply, it’s alleged, were reassigned elsewhere by the meat companies.

“It seems like magic realism,” Marcos Josegrei da Silva, the judge responsible for overseeing the so-called Weak Flesh investigation, said in a court order. “Unfortunately, it is not.”

In a statement, the Brazilian unit of Wal-Mart said it fully trusts its internal food safety procedures.

But should consumers?

The story trickled around the globe over the weekend and is now like a Brisbane downpour.

Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi said Saturday Brazil fears that it may lose foreign markets for its agricultural products.

The minister confirmed earlier media reports that the United States, the European Union and China have already requested Brazilian authorities to launch an investigation against the unscrupulous meat producers. However, none of these countries has so far announced that it was closing its market for animal products from Brazil.

On Friday, Brazil’s federal police arrested members of a major criminal group involved in trade of tainted food, mostly meat. According to police, the operation involved almost 1,100 police officers and became the country’s largest ever. The operation targeted major Brazilian meat producers selling their products both domestically and internationally.

Investigators detained a number of meat industry employees, who are suspected of bribing agriculture watchdogs to receive quality certificates for low-quality goods without proper checks. Some of those money were reportedly used to finance political parties.

Police says that the suspects also used acid and other chemicals to make the rotten meat appear fresh.

The Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and the Environment has stated it is taking the issue seriously and will investigate if spoiled meat has been brought to Finland.

In Finland, Brazilian meat has been sold in stores belonging to S Group.

‘Defendants as dirty as their restaurants’ arrested for bribing monitors over food violations

Aidan Gardiner of DNA Info reports three restaurateurs were arrested this week for bribing city monitors to not penalize them for violations including flies, handling food without gloves and keeping a lizard in a fish tank, officials said.

bribeMorie Kabba of The Bronx was arrested Monday while Jonathan Niranjan and Mohammad Safi, who run establishments in Queens, were arrested Tuesday, according to Department of Investigation officials. They all face bribery charges and up to seven years behind bars, officials said.

“DOI’s investigation found these defendants were as dirty as their restaurants,” said Mark Peters, the DOI commissioner.

“In New York City, you can’t clean up a dirty restaurant with a bribe. DOI will continue to pursue unscrupulous business owners and operators who try to corrupt city employees for their own interests,” Peters said.

In each investigation, the men first bribed inspectors with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene who refused the money, but reported it to DOI which then sent undercover officers to each restaurant.

The undercover inspectors, spotted uncovered garbage cans, multiple flies and food residue on the floor of Jagana Family Kennedy Fried Chicken at 1375 Boston Road in Morrisania in October and reported it to Kabba, 42, officials said.

Kabba in turn gave the investigator $160, officials said.

Kabba was arraigned Monday and pleaded not guilty, officials said. He was released and due back in court on Jan. 17, 2017, officials said.

Similarly, a health inspector spotted an aquarium with a lizard inside Amazura, a music venue at 91-12 144th Place in Jamaica, and told Niranjan, 28, he’d have to remove it, officials said. Niranjan then told the inspector he forgot something in the bathroom, prompting the inspector to return inside and find “a wad of cash” on top of the sink, officials said.

An undercover inspector then visited the establishment in August and spotted a broken sink faucet, many flies and food handlers not using gloves, officials said. Niranjan then gave the undercover $300 in cash to “save him on some of the violations,” officials said.

Undercover investigators in May also spotted uncovered garbage cans, a broken sink faucet and staff touching food with bare hands inside Farm Fried N Curry Chicken at 120-20 Merrick Blvd. in South Jamaica, officials said.

 

Punjab Food Authority giving unsanitary restaurants an easy time of it

A food safety officer requesting anonymity said the Punjab Food Authority in Pakistan had received a complaint that an assistant food safety officer had received Rs50,000 bribe from the restaurant owner so he could keep his restaurant open. At the time, the PFA director general had constituted a three-member committee to probe the complaint which was later shelved, he said.

The food safety officer said this wasn’t the only restaurant that had reopened before the stipulated period. The SOPs regarding duration of closure and required permission from the PFA DG are being flouted openly, he said.

In the first week of 2015, Food Safety Officer Nadeem fined a restaurant in GOR-I for unhygienic conditions anPunjab Food Authorityd lack of soaps in the workers’ washrooms. According to the SOP, the restaurant should have been sealed but it was fined Rs25,000 instead.

PFA spokesperson Fareeha Anwer said the SOP had been amended a little but it was being observed to the letter. She said a written permission from the DG used to be mandatory in order to de-seal restaurants, but now an operations deputy director can also issue permission for it.

 

Two Florida restaurant inspectors arrested for taking bribes

Police in Jacksonville, Florida arrested two local health inspectors following allegations they coerced restaurant managers to bribe them, so they’d look the other way when they found critical violations.

WTEV reports police are refusing to name those restaurants to Action News and say they won’t be charged with any crime. "We are not releasing them because of the investigation," said Sheriff John Rutherford.

The sheriff stood firm, refusing to say which 17 local restaurants had crucial violations, and paid off food inspectors to hide them. Violations included, roaches or unsanitary food condition. The restaurants could’ve faced fines or even be forced to shut down.

Instead, the sheriff says the owners gave hundreds of dollars to Moses Davis and Steven Rivera to give them a clean report. Even more surprising, the sheriff says the restaurants aren’t facing charges. "I think they were coerced through the process," said the sheriff.

When we asked the state if these restaurants were re-inspected, they sent us a statement. "We are currently in the process of reassigning all of the establishments previously inspected by these individuals," said Dir. Of Communications Sandi Poreda.

The whole thing has restaurant owners like Jerry Moran fired up. "To have to pay off a state official to stay out of the way of government, a lot of us are sick and tired," said Jerry Moran.

But he’s not surprised it happened with how hard it is to pass state food inspections these days. "It depends on who the inspector is and how you play your cards," said restaurant owner Jerry Moran. 

Food inspector peddled vitamins to owners of restaurants she inspected

On a cloudy afternoon in September, Chicago health inspector Charity Okoro arrived at Taste of Peru and began pointing out problems.

"She comes into the restaurant really mad, really screaming," recounted co-owner Cesar Izquierdo, according to city documents. He said she accused the restaurant of a handful of violations including cross-contamination for leaving an open can of beer, used for cooking, next to an uncut avocado.

Okoro issued a ticket for about $500 worth of fines but, Izquierdo said, she changed her tone when she learned that he suffers from back problems.

"Right away she stopped screaming, she stopped everything, you know, she stopped the inspection," he told city officials. He said she assured him she could "fix you up."

The very next day Okoro was back. But this time as a vitamin saleswoman.

Izquierdo bought $391 worth of Nutrilite vitamins, according to records. "I was a little intimidated," Izquierdo recalled. "This was the inspector selling them."

Izquierdo and his wife, Julie, said that after the sale was complete the inspector told them the date of their upcoming reinspection and assured them that everything would be fine. When Okoro arrived on the promised date, she didn’t come into the kitchen but issued them a passing grade nonetheless, said Julie Izquierdo.

The Tribune found three other Rogers Park restaurants where owners say Okoro peddled her vitamins. Yet neither the Izquierdos nor any of those owners complained to the city’s Department of Public Health.

Finally, in November, after much deliberation and loss of sleep, Julie Izquierdo decided to report the incident — along with supporting documents — to an administrative law judge when she went to contest the fines. The administrative judge reversed the fines against Taste of Peru, and a city investigation then led to Okoro’s resignation.

The Chicago Tribune reports it’s a sequence of events that lays plain the difficult relationship between the city’s restaurants and its regulators. The city says it welcomes complaints from restaurant owners, whom a Health Department spokeswoman called "our eyes and ears."

But in the course of its investigation, the city did not reach out to any of the restaurants where Okoro tried to sell her vitamins. Meanwhile, some restaurant owners said they assume any concerns they express to the city are likely to fall on deaf ears or, worse, be used against them.

"There is (an assumption) in food business that they will suffer terrible consequences if they step forward," said Logan Square Kitchen owner Zina Murray, who launched a petition last summer to change Health Department policies but said few restaurants would sign it for fear of angering the city.

Inspectors, in particular, hold great power in the restaurant world because a bad report or temporary shutdown can cost owners thousands of dollars and jeopardize business.

Bribes let tomato vendor sell tainted food

It’s like a bad Lifetime special movie event:

Randall Rahal, a New Jersey businessman who acted as a broker for SK Foods in peddling crappy tomato paste, recounted how he would drop a $100 bill on the floor, then bend to pick it up, saying: “You must have dropped this. Is it yours?”

If the person said yes, Mr. Rahal considered him receptive.

For all the talk of food safety, food is still a commodity that can be traded and bartered with no concern for microbiological consequences, and apparently on the bend-and-snap.

And a lot of the culprits seem housed in the biggest food companies.

As the N.Y. Times reports this morning, Robert Watson, a top ingredient buyer for Kraft Foods, needed $20,000 to pay his taxes. So he called a broker for a California tomato processor that for years had been paying him bribes to get its products into Kraft’s plants.

The check would soon be in the mail, the broker promised. “We’ll have to deduct it out of your commissions as we move forward,” he said, using a euphemism for bribes.

Days later, federal agents descended on Kraft’s offices near Chicago and confronted Mr. Watson. He admitted his role in a bribery scheme that has laid bare a startling vein of corruption in the food industry. And because the scheme also involved millions of pounds of tomato products with high levels of mold or other defects, the case has raised serious questions about how well food manufacturers safeguard the quality of their ingredients.

Over the last 14 months, Mr. Watson and three other purchasing managers, at Frito-Lay, Safeway and B&G Foods, have pleaded guilty to taking bribes. Five people connected to one of the nation’s largest tomato processors, SK Foods, have also admitted taking part in the scheme.

Now, federal prosecutors in California have taken aim at the owner of SK Foods, who they say spearheaded the far-reaching plot. The man, Frederick Scott Salyer, was arrested at Kennedy Airport in New York City on Feb. 4 after getting off a flight from Switzerland. He was indicted last week on racketeering, fraud and obstruction of justice charges.

The scheme, as laid out by federal prosecutors, has two parts. Officials say that Mr. Salyer and others at SK Foods greased the palms of a handful of corporate buyers in exchange for lucrative contracts and confidential information on bids submitted by competitors. This most likely drove up ingredient prices for the big food companies.

In addition, prosecutors say that for years, SK Foods shipped its customers millions of pounds of bulk tomato paste and puree that fell short of basic quality standards — with falsified documentation to mask the problems. Often that meant mold counts so high the sale should have been prohibited under federal law; at other times it involved breaching specifications in the sales contracts, such as acidity levels or the age of the product.

The scope of the tainted shipments was much broader than the bribery scheme, touching more than 55 companies. In some cases, companies detected problems and sent the products back — but in many cases, according to prosecutors, they did not, and the tainted ingredients wound up in food sold to consumers.

Prosecutors said that no one was sickened by the mold-tainted products and that they were not a health risk.

But it gets back to a key point I keep reiterating – companies that rely on outside auditors do themselves a disservice – and put their brand at risk – if they don’t have the in-house food safety expertise to assess whether they’re being fed nonsense or not.

Mold count is fairly basic with tomatoes.

Randy W. Worobo, an associate professor of food microbiology at Cornell University, said companies should learn from the SK Foods case that they must do a better job of monitoring their ingredients.

“There’s been a lot of hype about inferior-quality products being made in China and then sold to the U.S. consumer. This is exactly the same thing, but it’s based in the U.S.”

Kraft, the nation’s largest food manufacturer, appears to have been among the biggest companies skimmed by the bribes. Court papers say that Kraft bought about 230 million pounds of processed tomatoes from SK Foods from 2004 to 2008, as Mr. Watson took $158,000 in bribes.

Michael P. Doyle, the director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said there had been several cases in recent years in which ingredient suppliers were suspected of falsifying documentation to mask quality or safety faults in foods, especially with imports. He said that should make companies more aggressive in testing, not only to guard against pathogens but also to check quality.

“As a consumer I wouldn’t want to have moldy tomatoes in my tomato ketchup or my tomato products,” Dr. Doyle said.