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School Lunch Program Supplier Sold Juice With High Arsenic Levels, U.S. Says in Lawsuit

A supplier that provided three million servings of apple juice a year to a federal school lunch program sold juice with high levels of arsenic and used rotted fruit that contained toxins, the Food and Drug Administration said in a lawsuit that it filed recently against the company.

In the lawsuit, which was filed on Nov. 6 in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Washington, lawyers for the government wrote that the juice supplier, Valley Processing of Sunnyside, Wash., had been cited for food safety violations on numerous occasions as far back as 2016 and had promised to take corrective action, but never did.

“Defendants have an extensive history of processing juice under grossly insanitary conditions,” the lawsuit said.

Valley Processing would be forced to suspend its operations, destroy its remaining inventory and adopt a sanitary control program developed by an independent expert before it could reopen under a consent decree proposed by the federal government.

A lawyer for the company and its president, Mary Ann Bliesner, who was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, wrote in an email to The New York Times on Tuesday night that the company had ceased its operations and liquidated its assets. The company was in the Yakima Valley, which is known for its orchards and produce.

The lawyer, Lillian S. Hardy, described the government’s complaint as misleading, saying that the company had not sold juice directly to consumers but through other suppliers.

“Valley Processing is confident the juice sold by its customers was in full compliance with the F.D.A. guidance,” Ms. Hardy said. “Valley Processing did have recalls in 2019 and 2018 of apple juice it produced in 2018 and 2017, and in both instances, the company cooperated with the agency request.”

Still, Ms. Hardy said, the company has agreed to the terms of the proposed consent decree, which must be approved by a judge.

The company, which was incorporated in 1980, supplied apple juice through one of its customers to a school lunch program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to the lawsuit, which said that Valley Processing had distributed its products in California.

It was not immediately clear how long the company had supplied apple juice that was part of the school lunch program or which districts had used its products.

An F.D.A. spokeswoman declined to comment on Tuesday because of the lawsuit, and a U.S.D.A. spokesman said that information about the company’s role in the school lunch program was not immediately available.

Food safety investigators said that they had found high levels of inorganic arsenic in 17 lots of apple juice products and two lots of pear juice during a 2019 inspection. Arsenic, which can come from rock erosion, volcanic eruptions, pesticide use and contamination from mining and smelting ores, can cause cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes in humans, according to the F.D.A.

The inspectors said that they had also discovered high levels of the mycotoxin patulin in the company’s apple and pear juices. Patulin is produced by rotting or moldy apples and pears. It can cause nausea, vomiting and gastrointestinal disturbances in humans, according to the F.D.A.

Instead of developing a plan to reduce the amount of patulin in its juice products, the company changed its quality control standards to allow even more fruit that had significantly rotted to be used, the F.D.A. said.

“During a 10-minute period at the June 2019 inspection, F.D.A. investigators observed approximately 46 apples that were visibly deteriorated with mold and rot pass through the sorting/culling critical control point,” the lawsuit said.

Ms. Hardy, the lawyer for the company, disputed the allegations.

“Valley Processing had procedures in place to cull fruit with evidence of damage,” she wrote.

The alleged violations also included blending the sludge at the bottom of juice concentrate barrels, known as “bottoms,” with newer lots, storing grape juice concentrate at ambient temperatures and using concentrate from as far back as 2011.

In September, another company in Washington State that produces fruit juice, concentrates and purées, Milne Fruit Products, announced that it had acquired the physical assets from Valley Processing that included real estate, buildings, processing equipment, forklifts and furniture.

The company’s president, Michael Sorenson, wrote in an email to The Times on Tuesday night that the purchase had not included the business itself or its food products. He wrote that Milne Fruit Products had developed and adopted its own food safety plan at the facility and did not assume the operations of Valley Processing.

“The acquired assets are being operated, run, and overseen solely by Milne and its quality assurance department without any involvement or relationship with Valley Processing or its prior management,” Mr. Sorenson wrote.

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