LA importer charged with distributing toxic toothpaste

March 6, 2008 7:09:17 PM PST
Criminal charges have been filed against a company that prosecutors say imported and distributed nearly 90,000 tubes of Chinese toothpaste containing a poisonous substance and a wholesaler that supplied local stores with the tubes, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo announced Thursday. Selective Imports Corp. sold the toothpaste containing diethylene glycol to distributors nationwide between December 2005 and May 2007, prosecutors said. Vernon Sales Inc. is accused of buying some of the tubes and reselling them to Los Angeles stores.

Diethylene glycol is a chemical used in antifreeze and as a solvent. Chinese manufacturers have used the chemical, known as DEG, as a cheaper alternative to glycerin, which thickens toothpaste. Exposure to DEG, however, can cause kidney and liver damage over time.

Vernon Sales President Kamyab Toofer, Vice President Pejman Mossay and the company itself each were charged with 14 criminal counts of receiving, selling and delivering an adulterated drug.

Selective Imports, its president, Frahad Nazarian and Vice President Yones Ghermezi each were charged with two criminal counts each of receiving, selling and delivering products containing DEG.

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.

The misdemeanor charges were filed Monday, he said. Each count carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

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 believed 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."

A fax to Vernon Sales seeking comment was not immediately returned.

China's reputation as an exporter has taken a beating in the past year following recalls of products including the toothpaste, toys tainted with lead, and pet food fortified with the toxic chemical melamine.

Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Las Vegas-based ChemNutra Inc. and two Chinese businesses in the tainted pet food incidents that killed potentially thousands of animals.

ChemNutra and its owners were charged with multiple misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce, along with one felony count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

The Los Angeles charges stem from an investigation after the FDA confiscated some 70,000 tubes of adulterated toothpaste delivered to the Port of Long Beach in May, Baik said.

The FDA confiscated that shipment when it came from the same Chinese manufacturer as DEG-tainted cough syrup blamed for the deaths of at least 94 people in Panama since July 2006, he said.

The company executives charged Monday were accused of involvement in the sale of toothpaste delivered in a previous shipment, Baik said.

At least 480 tubes were resold by Vernon Sales to stores within Los Angeles, which gave the city attorney's office jurisdiction to investigate, he said.

Baik did not know how many of those tubes had been recovered and how many had been sold.

The shipments that came before the seizure in May included 78,336 tubes of spearmint-flavored "Cooldent" toothpaste sold by Selective Imports to distributors around the country, according to the city attorney's office.

Nearly 10,000 additional tubes of fluoride "Cooldent" were also distributed around the country in early May, prosecutors said.

Baik said he know of no illnesses associated with the toothpaste in Los Angeles.

FDA spokeswoman Rita Chappelle said she was not aware of anyone outside the city who had fallen ill after using the toothpaste.