AIKEN - The general manager of an Orangeburg, S.C., food distributor that has bid on public school contracts across South Carolina, including in Aiken County, was indicted this month on federal meat inspection violations that could see his business fined as much as $500,000.
Steven Bradley Lee and Orangeburg Sausage Co. are charged with "doing an act in October 2001 with respect to approximately 625 pounds of meat food products which had the effect of causing the meat to be adulterated, with intent to defraud," according to the indictment.
Under the federal meat inspection act, "adulterated" generally means a product is contaminated by a foreign substance.
Officials in U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr.'s office are saying little about the one-count indictment against Mr. Lee, 29, the general manager of Orangeburg Sausage. A federal grand jury in Columbia returned the indictment July 16.
A Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety litigation, however, said criminal prosecutions for meat inspection violations are seldom pursued unless the alleged acts are severe.
"In order for a federal prosecutor to step in and indict someone under the meat inspection act, there really must be some egregious violations," Bill Marler said. "It's absolutely uncommon."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rushky would not elaborate on the government's allegations beyond the indictment, citing his office's policy of not commenting on pending cases. He said that the case was prompted by a consumer complaint and that the meat products in question were shipped to Florida, where they were inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors and destroyed. Mr. Rushky would not say how the meat was contaminated.
Telephone messages left for Mr. Lee on Tuesday were unreturned.
Neither Aiken County schools nor Edgefield County schools reported doing business with Orangeburg Sausage Co., but Jo Ann Griffin, the director of food services for the Aiken County public school district, said the company has tried to win business from the 65-district buying consortium the county belongs to in order to win bigger discounts on volume purchases.
Although Aiken County buys its food from U.S. Foods, Ms. Griffin said, Orangeburg Sausage has won bids on food contracts for other districts in South Carolina.
"It's one of those things you have to keep an eye on," Ms. Griffin said. "You have to make sure where they're getting their food from and what you're getting."
The company is subject to regular inspections by the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, said Dr. Lewis Burgman, the manager of the Raleigh, N.C.-based district of the USDA that oversees the South Carolina region.
Dr. Burgman said he wasn't aware of the case and referred questions to the USDA's office of public affairs in Washington. Agency spokesman Steven Cohen said specific information about the case would need to come through the U.S. attorney's office.
In addition to the fine, Mr. Lee faces as much as three years in prison. He is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court in Columbia on Aug. 5.
Mr. Marler, who has represented dozens of clients who have been sickened or died after consuming tainted food products, said that, in general, federal prosecutors file charges only when company officials lie to investigators and refuse to hand over documents or when a company official either knew about food products being contaminated or should have known and shipped them anyway.
The general manager of the food distributor could face up to three years in prison and a $500,000 fine. Orangeburg Sausage Co. had bid on area school food contracts, according to an Aiken County school official.
The former happened in 1999, when prosecutors went after the corporate officers of the Hudson Meat Co. in Nebraska for shipping 12 million pounds of tainted meat. The company officials were not prosecuted for the tainted meat; they were prosecuted for not being truthful to the FBI and refusing to hand over company documents.
All were acquitted, said Mr. Marler, who has participated in some of the nation's largest tainted food products cases, including representation of several children sickened by Odwalla fruit juice and the 1993 case brought against Jack-In-the-Box fast food franchises after four people died and 700 were sickened.
Cases in which officials allegedly knew of and sold or approved the use of tainted meat include one in Chicago, in which schoolchildren were sickened by ammonia-laced chicken and two lower-level Illinois school officials were indicted, Mr. Marler said.
"I encourage prosecuting attorneys to prosecute these companies," Mr. Marler said. "Sometimes, the only way to get these guys to do the right thing by people who have been sickened by their product is for them to have to think about the possibility of bars clanging shut behind them."
Typical meat contaminants are metal shavings, bacteria such as E. coli, chemicals such as ammonia, and rodent and bird droppings, Mr. Marler said.
South Carolina Bureau Chief Jim Nesbitt contributed to this article.
Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1394.
--From the Wednesday, July 30, 2003 printed edition of the Augusta Chronicle