Could cheese bound for mink farm make it to human food chain?

Jan Shepel
Customer lists show cheese intended for mink feed may have been bound for federal prisons to be used for inmate consumption in resale scheme.

MADISON – A complaint about adulterated cheese nearly getting from animal food channels into the human food chain resulted in a thorough investigation from Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection food safety officials – and the results don’t please some who are concerned about the reputation of Wisconsin cheese.

The investigation shows that a large quantity of cheese destined to feed animals never ended up sold in the human food chain, but it does reveal how food can move from “animal feed” to human channels almost without any record-keeping.

Wisconsin cheese packager Shorty Curran complained to DATCP board members at their September meeting that no one was held responsible when cheese that should never have gotten into the human food chain, nearly did.

During a public comment period at that meeting, Curran explained how he had almost gotten drawn into a scheme to take cheese that was intended to feed mink when he was asked to repackage it for human consumption.

As Wisconsin State Farmer first reported in September, Curran’s first clue that there was something wrong with the semi-load of cheese was that it was not in the normal form for cheese intended to be cut and wrapped at his Argyle business.

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

Curran’s attorney contacted the Food Safety division at DATCP to relay his concerns. When the department began investigating, they put a hold on the cheese. Eventually it ended up in the Green County landfill. The attention Curran brought to the issue drew a lengthy report to the DATCP board on Nov. 7 in Madison.

Steve Ingham

Steve Ingham, administrator for the department’s division of Food and Recreational Safety, explained that the incident had involved a great number of people, some of them outside Wisconsin.

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“An initial key point to be made is that a food, or the ingredients making up a food, can pass through many hands in Wisconsin, the United States and internationally,” he reported to the board. “This case involved at least two brokers located in Minnesota, three Wisconsin dairy plants, three Wisconsin food warehouses, two Wisconsin mink farms and two trucking firms.”

There may even have been more entities involved, he added. Ingham also noted that when large amounts of product are dealt with as in this case, small increases in price per pound will add up to significant money.

“So the opportunity to buy product at animal feed prices and sell it at human food prices is extremely lucrative,” Ingham said.

Curran had brought the agency’s attention to roughly 37,000 pounds of cheese at his plant, but there were nearly 6 million pounds of the same cheese in the DATCP investigation – all part of the production that was intended for animal feed.

Ingham said the original cheese maker uses a municipal water source. Unknown to the dairy plant, a filter had failed in the municipal water system and allowed their cheese to be adulterated with black specks from carbon filters used in the water treatment system.

The cheese plant operators decided that the cheese should not be sold for human consumption and contacted a cheese broker (in Minnesota) to move the product into animal food channels at a steep discount. Ingham, who didn’t name names in his report, dubbed the first buyer Wisconsin Mink Farm “A”.

He emphasized that the original cheese plant made the decision to move the cheese into animal feeding channels on its own – without asking for input from regulators.

“I don’t fault the initial dairy company. They got it to someone who was supposed to get it out of human food channels,” Ingham said.

Cheryl Daniels, an attorney with the department, said there was also no problem with the first broker.

“The dairy asked for it to be sold as animal feed and it was sold for animal feed,” she told the board.

Mass quantities

Because of the large quantity of this cheese, it was stored in at least three different food warehouses, and was in wooden boxes containing 640-pound blocks of cheese.

Ingham said the amount of cheese bought by the first mink farm was so large that they couldn’t use it all, so some of it was sold to Mink Farm B. At that point, broker B (also in Minnesota) entered the picture, arranging for the sale of cheese from the second mink farm to what Ingham called an “intra-family” operation that involved several trucking companies and “at least one dairy plant.”

This second dairy plant arranged for some cheese to be moved from at least one of the food warehouses to Curran’s cutting and repackaging plant.

Based on conversations he had with the broker who sent him the cheese, Curran believed that the cheese he was asked to cut and repackage was moving from the mink farm arena to human food sales. Customer lists later obtained by DATCP investigators “lent credence to this assertion,” Ingham said. “Of particular note to me and my colleagues were numerous customers in the federal prison system.”

As food safety officials began investigating, word got out to the industry and the second dairy plant got nervous, he said, and began moving cheese back to the warehouses and out of the “multi-company facilities.” Investigators then began putting hold orders on the cheese. This included the cheese at Curran’s plant along with about 5.8 million pounds of cheese at the three food warehouses and mink farm A, Ingham said.

“Through one set of lenses,” he said, “a crime was not committed. We caught it.”

But investigators were hampered by poor record-keeping, which was common. Much of the business dealing appeared to be done verbally, so records were non-existent.

“We can’t conclusively say whether this style of record-keeping was deliberate,” Ingham said

His agency’s attempts to get further records “were met with varying degrees of cooperation,” Ingham said.

Handed to DOJ

In late summer 2018, Ingham said he and his staff realized they lacked the resources to take the case further and referred it to the state Department of Justice where officials have experience in financial forensics. By August 2019, the DOJ decided it would not prosecute the case, which is what brought an angry Curran to the DATCP board in September.

According to Ingham, specific legal problems were that there was insufficient evidence to identify a specific person who could be charged criminally and there is a lack of interest in prosecuting a crime that is a misdemeanor, which is the legal category where sale of adulterated food falls. He noted that there was lack of evidence that the cheese was clearly adulterated.

“Adulterated food is a high bar to clear,” he added.

While Shorty Curran, owner of a cheese cutting and wrapping warehouse, was angry no one was held accountable in scheme to sell cheese bound for a mink farm to businesses for consumer use, state officials say “It just didn’t rise to the level of concern for the Department of Justice.”

Curran told board members in September that one DOJ official implied that this affair was no big deal because “nobody got sick.” Ingham said that lines up with his reading of the case. The DOJ had concluded there was not enough evidence to show that the cheese was adulterated because “no one was poisoned,” Ingham had been told.

“I can understand the concern of Mr. Curran,” said Ingham. “It just didn’t rise to the level of concern for the Department of Justice.”

The investigation shows that food and ingredients may travel between animal and human grade channels but often food that moves into the animal feeding side is “denatured” in some way to make it obvious so that it can’t be sold to people.

“One practical problem in this case was that there is no effective way of denaturing 640-pound blocks of cheese. I don’t have an answer. It’s not like dumping dye in a tank of milk,” he said.

Ingham said DATCP regulators generally take action against license holders. If someone does something wrong, the agency can use its leverage on their license. If cases don’t involve licenses, the other options are civil forfeiture involving fines and jail terms or a criminal action.

Ingham said that the offense of selling adulterated food presents its own set of challenges. Generally, district attorneys are not interested in food cases. Daniels, the agency attorney, said one of the problems for DATCP is balancing how to best use their resources – getting people into compliance for the least possible cost.

District attorneys deal with drugs, murders and domestic violence, she added. “It’s (adulterated food) simply not their first priority nor would I expect it to be,” she said.

Never sold to people

In the case of the animal food that was brought to the agency’s attention, Ingham said that “as far as we know, the public was never sold the cheese that was intended for the mink farm.”

He noted that his division has rules that involve vastly different levels of record-keeping requirements from one segment of even the dairy industry to another.

“At one extreme we require accurate measurement and recording of the weight of each load of milk picked up at a licensed milk producer’s farm,” he said.

Record-keeping requirements continue through the testing of the milk for drug residues and pasteurization of that milk. Somewhat less rigorous are record-keeping requirements for food warehouses.

“We don’t have lot-record requirements for 640- and 40-pound blocks of cheese being bought and sold multiple times before a consumer sale is made,” Ingham said.

“Is the situation we investigated unique to Wisconsin? I doubt it. But I suspect that the sheer number of dairy businesses in the state complicates oversight,” he said.           “These are some pretty deep issues we face. I don’t see any immediate solutions. There’s always a cost to enforcement.”

Ingham noted that regulators at the agency “have an idea of the ‘relative closeness to the line’ of those we regulate. Some are ‘knights in shining armor' and some tiptoe right along the line. One of the players in this tale was one of the latter group,” he told board members.