Bootleg Clams: Felony Charges Filed

DANIEL P. PUZO, TIMES STAFF WRITER

Felony criminal charges were filed last week against three principals in a California fish-processing company for selling more than 100,000 pounds of highly contaminated clams over several months in 1991, according to state health officials and the Tulare County district attorney's office. The allegations are among the most serious ever brought against a food company in the state.

The violations involved baby or fresh-water clams, a specialty item. The defendants were the only ones in the state licensed to harvest the fresh-water bivalves, but the vast majority of baby clams sold commercially are of the salt-water variety. Some salt-water clams--Manila clams and butter clams--are also known as baby clams, but these varieties were unaffected by the state's action.

The shellfish were sold primarily to Asian restaurants and markets in Los Angeles. Investigators believe as much as $300,000 was generated from the illegal and potentially hazardous catch.

The three, owner Danny Lee Burns of Aptos, manager Sarah Bobbie Bebee of Pixley, and supervisor Earl Dean McKee of Marysville, were charged with conspiracy to commit acts injurious to the public and for obstructing justice, both felonies. Several misdemeanor charges, including selling adulterated food and taking shellfish from uncertified waters, were also filed against the defendants and their company, Fresh Fish Co., Inc., of Pixley.

"Where you obtain clams is important and it is especially important that the water be uncontaminated," said Tulare County deputy district attorney Clark Hiddleston, who is prosecuting the case. "Clams have an intestinal filtering system, in which they filter the water of their habitat. Anything in that water will also wind up in the clam and people will eat (these same potential contaminants)."

Hiddleston said the defendants are no longer in business and last shipped clams in January. Repeated attempts to contact them for comment were unsuccessful.

The action, the culmination of a lengthy investigation, comes at a time when the seafood industry is trying to minimize claims that contaminated fish and shellfish products are entering consumer channels. Further, the filing of felony charges against food processors is considered rare, as most industry violations are considered misdemeanors, according to Greg Lewis, spokesman for the California Health Services Dept. in Sacramento.

"Most of the regulatory actions taken against (food) firms are a matter of sanitation or misbranding, usually a case where they have made mistakes but haven't corrected them," said Jim Waddell, regional administrator for the Health Services Department's Food and Drug Branch. "When a company is certified to harvest shellfish, then that conveys a considerable responsibility to them, and there is the potential for a public health hazard. When they are not in compliance, then we do consider it quite serious."

Federal health officials have long identified the illegal harvest of shellfish as one of the major food safety problems facing the seafood industry. However, much of the government's focus has been on the bootlegging of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, which has extensive areas of costal waters closed because of industrial or sewage contamination.

Fresh-water clams have been legally harvested for human consumption in California since 1978, but there are only two locations that are certified as clean by the state: Lake Isabella in Kern County and Thermalito Afterbay in Butte County.

State officials believe that the supply of clams in Lake Isabella was greatly reduced because of the drought and that the suspects sought out other growing areas including contaminated canal waters near Dixon.

Glen Lawrence, an investigator with the Health Services Department, said laboratory tests of the illegal catch had five times the legal allowable level of fecal coliform, an indicator of sewage and filth. The fecal coliform count of clams tested was 1,300 parts per million, well above the legal maximum of 230 ppm.

Such an elevated contamination level could cause gastrointestinal problems including nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, Lawrence said. The symptoms may be severe in high-risk groups such as infants, the elderly, pregnant women and immuno-compromised individuals.

Virtually all of the clams sold in Southern California were distributed by Pacific Fresh Fish in Los Angeles. The company was not implicated in the violations because the suspects forged certificates indicating the clams were harvested from state-approved waters.

No illnesses have been linked to the contaminated clams, state health officials reported.

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