CAUTION: The following article contains content that may be upsetting for some readers. That includes allegedly poisoned beverages that were possibly consumed by school-aged children.
The owner of a defunct fruit juice producer who agreed in 2021 to a permanent injunction filed by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of FDA has been charged with fraud in a 12-count indictment returned by a grand jury in Yakima, Wash.
Eighty-year-old Mary Ann Bliesner and her company, Valley Processing Inc. (VPI), are accused of manufacturing and distributing tainted fruit juice and deceiving customers about the tainted products.
Bliesner, of Sunnyside, Wash., has been charged with 12 felony counts. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison, DOJ announced in a Sept. 15 news release. The charges against her include such counts as introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, failure to register a food facility, wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud and obstruct FDA’s regulatory functions.
Bliesner is scheduled for an initial court appearance on Oct. 5 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alex Ekstrom. As of Sept. 19, an attorney was not listed for Bliesner on the federal court docket, and prosecutors did not respond to a request for comment regarding whether she was represented by counsel.
VPI produced single-strength fruit juice and fruit juice concentrate, including apple, grape and pear. The indictment alleged Bliesner and VPI conspired with others to distribute contaminated and potentially unsafe apple and grape juice concentrate to customers in the United States and abroad, DOJ said.
Some of the juice products were allegedly sold to customers who supplied a federal program that offers free or reduced-cost lunches to children in school. Tens of millions of children annually have participated in the National School Lunch Program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Between October 2012 and June 2019, Bliesner’s juice products were produced under insanitary conditions and contained potentially harmful levels of such contaminants as arsenic, and in some cases juice products stored outside for years and exposed to the elements were sold to customers, DOJ said. Patulin, another contaminant linked to the juice maker, is a mycotoxin produced by certain mold species, the indictment said.
Bliesner and VPI also allegedly neglected to register two facilities used to store fruit juice products and lied to FDA inspectors about their existence and use. According to the indictment, juice processors are subject to criminal penalties for failing to register a food facility with FDA.
Bliesner and VPI “unlawfully and fraudulently enriched themselves by selling hundreds of thousands of gallons of adulterated juice concentrate and other fruit products that they knew were unfit for human consumption and which endangered the safety of the public, including, as defendants well knew, school children throughout the nation who consumed defendants’ juice products as part of free and reduced-cost school lunches,” alleged the 53-page indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.
The grand jury indictment described the defendants’ violations of food safety laws as “knowing” and “egregious” ones that “endangered the public” rather than “mere technical violations.”
For instance, during an inspection in 2018, FDA investigators snapped a photo of a live rat in a tank “standing on top of the moldy and rotten juice concentrate, the top layer of which contained a layer of mold thick and hard enough for the rat to walk on,” according to the indictment, which displayed a black-and-white picture of the rodent.
An FDA dashboard shows VPI was inspected six times since 2010, and investigators characterized four of the inspections in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 as “official action indicated," (OAI) a classification associated with objectionable conditions and recommended regulatory action. The company also received an FDA warning letter in 2016, according to the dashboard.
Bliesner and VPI “used moldy, fermented, rotten and otherwise adulterated juice product containing mold, animal excrement, insect and rodent remains, rusted metal and other contaminants to manufacture fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate and other products, which it then sold and shipped to customers in interstate commerce,” the indictment alleged. “To hide the age, contamination, adulteration, inferiority and poor quality of its products, defendants frequently ‘blended’ or ‘reworked’ these adulterated, inferior and contaminated products with newer product, and then assigned a new lot number and production date to the resulting product.”
Bliesner has been on DOJ’s radar since at least 2020, when the U.S. government filed a civil complaint seeking to prohibit Bliesner and VPI from producing, storing or selling juice or juice products. In January 2021, Bliesner and VPI agreed to the terms of an injunction, which barred the company from preparing, processing and distributing adulterated juice and other food products.
The consent decree of permanent injunction required FDA approval before VPI could resume operations. The defendants could not process or distribute any food in the future unless they first notified FDA in advance, complied with specific remedial measures identified in the injunction and permitted FDA to inspect their facilities and procedures.
VPI subsequently closed its operations.