Charges Filed Against Importers Of Toxic Toothpaste

On Tuesday, the city of Los Angeles and the FDA charged the heads of two U.S. importing companies with 14 counts each of “receiving, selling and delivering an adulterated drug,” for their roles in importing and distributing over 70,000 tubes of toothpaste containing diethylene glycol (DEG) instead of glycerin. “Each count carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.”

From the Washington Post:

The companies are liable for distributing the tainted product even if they had no direct knowledge of the risk because they were negligent in not ensuring the toothpaste was safe, Supervising Deputy City Attorney Jerry Baik said.

Ghermezi said he had not seen the charges but was shocked by the filing. All the adulterated toothpaste was voluntarily pulled from shelves and from his Vernon, Calif., company’s inventory eight months ago and destroyed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month, he said.

“Everything we had was destroyed by the FDA,” Ghermezi said. “I thought the file had been closed.”

Ghermezi said he supplied the toothpaste to Vernon Sales, also based in Vernon. He said his company never knowingly sold adulterated toothpaste and thought the product had FDA approval.

“We didn’t know of the ingredients of the toothpaste,” he said. “We don’t [have] any intention of hurting people.”

What’s the appropriate level of punishment for unwittingly importing tainted products? Is it reasonable to ask a U.S. importer to test products for safety and/or monitor production quality overseas? Is this too harsh, or do the prosecutors have evidence of deliberate negligence? We’re waiting to see more details of the case before feeling sympathy or vindication.

(Thanks to dsavlin!)

“Charges filed against LA importers over toxic Chinese toothpaste” [Chicago Tribune]
“Criminal Charges Filed Over Poisonous Toothpaste” [Washington Post]
“Los Angeles City’s Chief Prosecutor, Along With FDA, Files Criminal Charges Against Two Local Companies For Toxic Toothpaste Import “ [RTT News]

RELATED
“Man Who Discovered Tainted Toothpaste Located, Interviewed”
The saga of the tainted toothpaste on Consumerist
(Photo: Janmi_)

Comments

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  1. Smitherd says:

    “That’ll teach em not to brush their teeth!”

  2. brent_w says:

    I don’t know if there is any sort of evidence that I don’t know about.
    But on the surface this seems a bit harsh and unfair.

    These guys were just receiving an FDA approved toothpaste and sending it on to its destination. Can they really be expected to open and test every bottle of toothpaste to be sure its safe? Is that really their responsibility?

    It sounds to me like some suits trying to snag some political/voter cred by holding somebody responsible. And since they can’t touch the manufactures in china, they went for the closest scapegoat they could pin it on.

  3. sd180 says:

    @ bret_w:

    This is not politics- it’s the law (sounds dramatic, but true). The US has long had a strict liability tradition in terms of selling/importing things that can be considered a drug. And I’m pretty sure the legal doctrine has been around for longer than the US has been a country. There have been many instances of this happening before- various drug company heads getting criminal charges on instances just like this. -Sorta like getting that parking ticket for parking on the street on Friday morning when you didn’t know it was street cleaning. Unfair in one sense, but not in another…

    [en.wikipedia.org]

  4. bsalamon says:

    negligence doesn’t matter. It is strict liability.

  5. Mr. Gunn says:

    $14,000 is the maximum fine, so that can’t really be considered harsh by any standard. The jail time is a different story, but they probably won’t get any of that.

  6. FilthyHarry says:

    Well, lets talk politics: What pisses me off about about fiscal conservative types, is they say ‘deregulation’ out of one side of there mouth, saying the free market will take care of things, but on the other side of their mouths they say they want the gov’t to limit liability payout, which sounds suspiciously like regulation to me. Lets see, add these two things together and you get: Fuck the consumer.

  7. I think it’s a little harsh and onerous to ask importers to “certify” the safety of everything they import, but as a practical matter, it seems obvious they’re the only ones who can do it. If importers aren’t willing to take the risk (including the risk of criminal prosecution) to import something from shady factory, hopefully those shady factories will go out of business. As long as there’s no penalty for importers, there’s no incentive for overseas factories to clean up their acts, because the U.S. can’t get at them. It can get at the importers.

  8. vladthepaler says:

    If they were negligent, a fine of $14000 for endangering 70000 households is insultingly low. Certainly not a deterrant, or an encouragement to be aware of what one is importing.

  9. snoop-blog says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: well then whats preventing them from setting up a sham company with someone else to take the fall in a another country, and just importing sh*t.

    if you cannot oversee and ensure the products you sell, you shouldn’t be in business.

  10. SexCpotatoes says:

    All they had to do was read the box. Obvious misspellings of Africa and all that… Heavens forbid they should even GLANCE at what they are buying or selling. I’d say the recall might’ve come sooner had the companies taken tubes home and accidentally killed their own kids.

  11. snoop-blog says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: whoops sorry i clicked you by mistake. i agree with you all the way!

  12. LadyKathryn says:

    Is it reasonable to ask the importer to be responsible for the quality of their imports? You betcha, 100%. They don’t want to test shady product and/or spend time slogging through manufacturing plants at the ass end of the universe to make sure the quality systems in place are good? Tough cookies. Business is hard, quality control is part of it.

    If this were cars’ breaks or something it wouldn’t even be a question – the car company would be responsible, even if their no name supplier in Vietnam used newspaper instead of metal. They brought it here, it’s their problem when it turns out to be laced with poison.

  13. sue_me says:

    Can we go further and charge them with felony murder?

    The “receiving, selling and delivering an adulterated drug,” charge is I’m guessing a felony.

  14. sd180 says:

    @sue_me:

    actually, I think the temporal element of the common law’s felony murder requires that the death occur during the course of the actual felony as well. Now, if a homicide occurred in the course of the company heads letting poison toothpaste slip through, regardless of notions of but-for causation, then you might have a felony murder charge…. ;)

  15. ath0 says:

    Personally, I hold the cavity creeps responsible for this outrage!

  16. lax2prg says:

    my boyfriend owns an import/export firm in czech republic. he has an item tested from the first batch of everything he imports (from china or india or anywhere) that is intended for human consumption or for use during consumption (i.e., glasses and dishes) for lead and other poisons before selling to retailers. it is just common sense. something as invasive is toothpaste? i think it was the company’s responsibility to check this.