Jalisco President Pleads No Contest : Criminal Charges End Case in Which 40 Died From Listeriosis

Times Staff Writer

Gary S. McPherson, the president and principal owner of Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., which last year was linked with California’s biggest food poisoning case in which as many as 40 people died, pleaded no contest Thursday to misdemeanor criminal charges.

McPherson, in effect, admitted guilt to 10 violations of the state Health and Safety Code, including nine charges of manufacturing and selling adulterated food and one count of operating an unsanitary food-processing establishment.

The Jalisco corporation also pleaded no contest Thursday to 11 identical counts and faces possible fines.

The pleas in Los Cerritos Municipal Court in Bellflower all but closed the books on a lengthy, difficult criminal investigation for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office in which the cause of the listeriosis epidemic was never pinpointed.


McPherson, 45, a former accountant, faces possible fines of $1,000 on each misdemeanor count and, under a plea bargain with prosecutors, up to six months in County Jail. Sentencing by Municipal Judge James E. Pearce was set for June 4.

On March 27, the firm’s chief cheese maker, Jose Luis Medina, 45, pleaded no contest to 12 misdemeanor criminal counts as part of a separate plea bargain with the district attorney’s office. He will be sentenced May 20.

Originally, McPherson and the firm faced 60 misdemeanor criminal violations stemming from last year’s fatal outbreak, which affected mostly Latinos and hit hardest in the Los Angeles area.

“What we were trying to do is to make clear that everyone in a corporation who produces food--right up to the corporate president--may be criminally liable if the corporation produces adulterated products,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas A. Papageorge, chief of the prosecutor’s consumer protection division who spearheaded the Jalisco investigation.


“In my opinion, the food-producing firms in this state will view (McPherson’s) plea arrangement as a most serious result for a corporate official.”

McPherson could not be reached for comment Thursday. His wife, Susan, reached at the couple’s Pasadena home, referred all questions to her husband’s attorney.

The attorney, Roger Rosen, said he was “relatively satisfied” with the results of the monthlong plea-bargaining sessions.

McPherson, he said, “was a vulnerable target in this kind of situation” because of the strict liability laws that deal with food contamination cases.


Much of the focus of the prosecutor’s investigation was on the firm’s pasteurization process because the bacteria that caused the Jalisco cheese contamination, Listeria monocytogenes , is supposed to be killed by proper pasteurization.

But after months of investigation by federal and international experts, as well as Papageorge and his chief aide, Deputy Dist. Atty. Clifford Klein, officials struck out in determining the epidemic’s cause.

Moreover, the prosecution could not prove that there were any intentional food poisoning acts committed by Jalisco employees. Without these elements, Papageorge said Thursday, the district attorney’s office had to settle for misdemeanor penalties worked out in the plea bargain sessions.

Papageorge said the prosecutor’s office opted to avoid a trial because of “the massive expense” that would be involved.