Olive oil distributor sentenced

Olive oil distributor sentenced

John Henkel

The former president of a Blue Ash, Ohio, vegetable oil distributor was sentenced to four months in federal prison, four months of home incarceration, one year’s probation, and $3,100 in fines for adulterating and misbranding olive oil.

Nicola Ranieri, owner of the nowdefunct Rubino USA Inc., received the sentence last July 29 after waiving grand jury indictment and pleading guilty to two felony violations of adding cheaper ingredients to food products than those listed on product labels.

The Rubino USA case was one of several recent instances of consumer fraud through product adulteration, says Assistant Attorney General Frank Hunger, who oversees federal prosecutions of food and drug law. Other cases included adulterated juice products and fish. Hunger says consumers of these products are cheated because they don’t receive the product quality they pay for.

Officials found no evidence of health hazards with Rubino USA’s adulterated products. But the company defrauded consumers of about $280,000, according to FDA and court calculations.

The Rubino USA case began on July 27, 1992, when investigators in FDA’s Cincinnati district received a telephone tip claiming that the company routinely blends caola oil with olive oil but does not declare the blend on labels. Canola oil is a less expensive product derived from the rapeseed plant.

In October 1992, FDA bought off a store shelf a sample of the firm’s product labeled “pomace olive oil” and had it analyzed at the agency’s Philadelphia lab. Pomace olive oil is a byproduct of regular olive oil production that is less expensive than premium virgin or extra virgin olive oil. FDA’s analysis showed the sampled product contained between 42 and 68 percent undeclared canola oil.

On Feb. 4 and 5, 1993, an informant told FDA officials that in November 1991, Rubino USA obtained equipment for blending olive oils. Beginning in 1992, the informant said, the company routinely produced a blend containing half pomace olive oil and half undeclared canola oil but labeled it “pomace olive oil.” The company had a legitimate reason to keep canola oil in the facility because it produced two blends of olive and canola oils with labels indicating the proper canola oil content. The informant also provided materials showing that Rubino USA adulterated premium extra virgin olive oil with less expensive olive oils.

The informant explained that Rubino did not adulterate oils intended for retail packaging because the American Olive Oil Association randomly tests oils bottled for retail sales. The company also did not sell adulterated oils to a major grocery chain in the Cincinnati area because the chain has a product testing program that likely would have discovered the fraud.

Rubino USA only produced the illegal blends to fill immediate orders for commercial users so no adulterated stocks would be stored at the company, the informant said, adding that a semi-trailer’s presence on the loading dock in the afternoon usually meant an adulterated shipment was about to be transported.

FDA conducted surveillance of the firm in the early afternoon of Feb. 19, 1993, and observed a large semi-trailer in the company’s dock area.

On April 1, 1993, bearing a criminal search warrant, FDA investigators and U.S. marshals searched Rubino USA, confiscating computers, records, and barrels of oil. The 2 p.m. search was welltimed, says Bob Sharpnack, FDA compliance officer. “We knew from surveillance and from the informant’s statements that the company usually shipped its [adulterated] product around 2 in the afternoon,” he says. “We knew that we stood the best chance of catching the company in the act by conducting the search then. Lucky for the case, we were right.”

Based on evidence gathered, Ranieri entered into a plea bargain with the Justice Department that allowed him to help investigators develop other cases in exchange for sentence reduction. He entered guilty pleas last Feb. 15.

Following the search, Rubino USA also agreed to recall the remaining adulterated olive oil from the marketplace under FDA supervision. The recall was completed on July 30, 1993.

COPYRIGHT 1994 U.S. Government Printing Office

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