FRESNO – The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California on June 24 issued a permanent injunction that shuts down the operations of Wa Heng Dou-Fu & Soy Sauce Corp., a Sacramento-based manufacturer and distributor of soy sauce and tofu.
The injunction prohibits Wa Heng "from directly or indirectly receiving, preparing, processing, manufacturing, labeling, picking and/or distributing any article of food," it states.
The permanent injunction came at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). In a complaint filed June 21, the plaintiffs allege that Wa Heng's owners, Peng Xiang "Martin" Lin and Yuexiao "Opal" Lin, repeatedly failed to meet national food quality standards and maintain sanitary conditions in their plant, which resulted in the distribution of contaminated food products that pose serious health risks.
As per a consent decree, Wa Heng's owners agreed that if they intend to start doing business again they must demonstrate to the FDA that they have taken a variety of stipulated remedial actions. Among them Wa Heng must implement a pathogen control program at its plant developed by a hired independent expert, carry out tests for microbes and pathogens, and train employees regarding sanitary food handling, processing, storage and distribution techniques and standards.
Furthermore, if Wa Heng satisfies the terms and conditions of the consent decree it would then have to carry out periodic, independent food health audits to ensure ongoing compliance.
In the complaint, the DOJ and FDA recount repeated violations of federal food safety laws at the Wa Heng plant. These allegedly included inadequate hand washing, improperly cleaned equipment, and failure to take necessary precautions to protect against contamination of food and food contact surfaces.
In addition, samples taken from Wa Heng's plant in Sacramento allegedly tested positive for salmonella, the second most-common cause of food-borne, at times fatal, illness.
No illnesses linked to Wa Heng's soy-based food products have been reported. That said, a recent outbreak of salmonella contamination illustrates the risks to public health.
Just more than 900 people across 40 states fell ill between July 2015 and March this year when they were infected by strains of salmonella poona found in cucumber slices distributed by Andrew and Williamson Fresh Produce, according to the FDA and Center for Disease Control (CDC). Just more than 200 of reported cases indicated those affected had been hospitalized.
DOJ prosecutes cases, such as Wa Heng's, associated with food produced in unsanitary conditions on behalf of the FDA under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, Marler Clark attorney and food health and safety specialist Bill Marler told the Northern California Record.
The FDA resorts to taking legal action and turns to DOJ in situations where food industry participants show themselves to be unresponsive to communications and instructions regarding problems FDA food health inspectors find, he explained.
"I wouldn't say these sorts of injunctions are common, but they certainly aren't rare," he said.
The FDA doesn't have enough food inspectors to adequately police food processing facilities and enforce food safety and health laws and regulations, he added.
"The FDA has pretty limited resources when it comes to carrying out site inspections," he said. "They just don't have the people power to go into facilities on a regular basis."
As a result, the FDA becomes particularly concerned when inspectors go into facilities, find problems, come back and find that stipulated remedial actions haven't been taken, Marler said.
"Much of the reason for this is that taxpayers are unwilling to pay for more inspectors and inspections to prevent outbreaks," he said. "In that sense, you get what you pay for."
Marler recounted recent regulatory and legal history regarding ground beef products as an example. That included the largest recall of beef products in U.S. history. In 2011, Westland/Hallmarke Meat Packing Co. agreed to recall 143 million pounds of beef that had been distributed from its plant in Chino.
During that period, which extended through 2015, "almost all I did was E. coli cases linked to hamburger," Marler noted. "That's down to nearly zero, and almost all of that is due to increased scrutiny and enforcement by the FDA."
It's now required that meat packing plants must have an inspector on duty in order to operate. The extent of scrutiny and enforcement outside the meat packing sector isn't nearly as high, however.
"Unfortunately, I think we're going to see more closures [such as Wa Heng's] and outbreaks in future."
It could have been worse for Wa Heng and its owners, who could have been subject to criminal, as well as civil, court prosecution, Marler concluded.
"Closing down the shop is certainly more than a 'slap on the wrist,' but the plant poses a threat to public health even though it doesn't appear that any illnesses have been linked to this," he said.