Whistleblower: No one held accountable in tainted cheese incident

Jan Shepel
Shorty Curran, who owns a cheese cutting and wrapping warehouse in southwest Wisconsin, appealed to DATCP board members last week to intervene because no one has been held accountable for a scheme to sell cheese that was intended for animal consumption into the human food chain.

MADISON – A Wisconsin cheese packager complained to members of the state ag board that when he blew the whistle on cheese that should never had gotten into the human food chain, nothing happened to those responsible.

During the public comment period at the September 19 meeting of the Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Shorty Curran related how he had gotten drawn into a plan to take cheese that was intended as animal feed and repackage it for human consumption.

“This is dead wrong,” he told board members. “This is what you’re going to allow? This system failed me. This is not what it’s about.”

Curran’s first clue that there was something different about the semi-load of cheese was that it was not in the normal format for cheese intended to be cut and wrapped at his Argyle business. The Cheddar that came to him on pallets from a broker and he had to work to get it situated in the right format to process it.

When he conferred with the broker asking where the cheese came from, he says he was told “What does that matter to you? It’s private information.” That conversation, which occurred about a year ago, made him even more suspicious. Not wanting to be party to something he felt might be wrong, he consulted his lawyer.

Curran said the attorney then contacted the Food Safety division at DATCP to relay his concerns. As the department investigated the incident, they put a state hold on the cheese. Eventually it ended up in the Green County landfill. But that’s just the beginning of the story.

Just the beginning

As it turns out the cheese originated from an AMPI plant which uses a municipal water source in the plant where the cheese was made. Unknown to the cheese makers, a filter had failed in the municipal water system and allowed sand and gravel to enter the water system. No one really knows when this failure occurred, but the cheese plant didn’t want to take any chances with its product.

So plant officials stamped the cheese “For animal consumption only” and shipped it (presumably at a steep discount) to a mink farm where it could be eaten by those pelt producing animals. Curran says this is the cheese that ended up with the broker and landed in his shop and was eventually disposed in the Green County landfill.

Curran posed several questions to the DATCP board. He wondered what happened to all the other cheese that came from this cheese plant during the time of the water filter failure. He believes there were at least 40 semi loads of the cheese and has been told that some of it may have ended up being used in state prisons and a total of 52 institutions.

During its food safety investigation related to Curran’s complaint, DATCP officials generated 500 pages of documents, which are the subject of an open records request from The Milkweed, a dairy publication published by Pete Hardin, who also testified to the board on September 19. “If there hadn’t been smoke and fire they wouldn’t have generated 500 pages of documents,” he said.

Pete Hardin

“There has to be a chain of possession on food products and this clearly didn’t have that,” Hardin added.

What Curran and Hardin are most upset about is the fact that once state Food Safety officials did their investigation, they turned prosecution of the affair over to the state Department of Justice.

The investigation happened under the Walker administration, when Sheila Harsdorf served as Secretary at DATCP. Her officials evidently recommended prosecution of those involved, based on the fact that DATCP turned it over to the legal agency. Such prosecution is routinely done by attorneys at the DOJ or by local district attorneys.

"No big deal"

In the middle of this process, an election brought a changing of the guard at DOJ, with new Attorney General Josh Kaul taking over.

Recently when Curran and Hardin checked on the progress of that legal process, they were told that there would be no prosecution of those involved. Reportedly, one DOJ official implied it was no big deal because “nobody got sick.”

Curran is concerned that if 40 semi loads ended up in the human food chain, not only was were consumers exposed to a tainted product, but the image and reputation of Wisconsin cheese could have been damaged as well. Curran said that it was “big money” for those who took “animal feed” and up-sold it for human consumption.

Hardin told board members that in the minds of the nation’s consumers “Wisconsin equals cheese,” adding that the integrity and quality of cheese should not be compromised.

“DATCP is the federal Food and Drug Administration’s surrogate as part of a joint state-federal partnership,” he said. “When this was reported to DATCP in early 2018, state food safety officials did their job and turned over the file to the DOJ.”

Hardin said he tried several times unsuccessfully to get information on the case through DOJ channels. A few days after Hardin’s inquiries, Curran was called by a DOJ official who made the comment that “no one got poisoned.”

Hardin said he hoped DATCP officials and the board could prod the DOJ to do its job. “DATCP did theirs.”

If there is no action at the state level, Hardin said he was prepared to take the issue to the FDA.