former Valley Processing plant

A work crew hangs a Milne Fruit Products sign on the former Valley Processing plant Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Sunnyside, Wash.

Prosecutors have charged the owner of Valley Processing Inc. and her company with fraud and violations of food safety laws.

In the 53-page indictment filed in U.S. District Court, federal prosecutors allege that Mary Ann Bliesner, 80, of Sunnyside and her company knowingly sold fruit juice that was contaminated to the national school lunch program and other clients.

She and her now-defunct company are specifically charged with single counts of conspiracy to sell adulterated food, conspiring to defraud the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, conspiracy to commit mail fraud and two counts each of mail fraud, introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, failing to register a food facility and making false statements.

The allegations are similar to those raised in a civil suit filed against Bliesner and her company. That suit was settled in January 2021 with a consent decree banning Bliesner from producing fruit juices unless she and her company can demonstrate that it is not contaminated.

Bliesner, in a statement issued at that time, said the company had been sold and she left the juice industry permanently.

A message left with the attorneys who had represented her in the previous suit did not respond to messages by press time.

Federal officials alleged that the company stored thousands of drums of grape juice concentrate and other related products in the open, with some drums sitting there for years.

Along with rotting and fermenting under those conditions, the juices were also contaminated with inorganic arsenic, which can be found in groundwater and soil, and patulin, which is formed by mold growing on fruit, the affidavit said.

Other contaminants included rodent, cat and dog hair, dead insects, bird and rodent droppings, and bits of bird feathers, the indictment said.

The arsenic and patulin cannot be destroyed in pasteurization, but patulin can be eliminated if the juice is turned into alcohol or vinegar, according to court documents.

Valley Processing mixed the outdated, contaminated juice with fresh juice and then sold it as new product, the indictment said.

Bliesner, the indictment said, lied to investigators when she said she didn’t know about the efforts to blend contaminated juice with new juice.

If convicted, Bliesner faces up to 20 years in prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, while the company would face $500,000 in fines.

Prosser-based Milne Fruit purchased Valley Processing’s land, buildings and equipment in September 2020, Milne Fruit President Michael Sorenson said in an earlier interview. The sale specifically excluded any food products in inventory, raw materials and partially processed fruit juices, Sorenson said.

Reach Donald W. Meyers at dmeyers@yakimaherald.com.

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