The Napa County District Attorney said Thursday it will receive $1.5 million from one of the nation’s largest food distribution companies for keeping seafood, milk, raw meat and other perishable foods in unrefrigerated storage units in California, including a shed in American Canyon.
The settlement is part of nearly $20 millions that Sysco Corporation has agreed to pay the state of California and 10 counties.
The $1.5 million payment — perhaps the biggest obtained by the Napa County District Attorney’s Office — will be used in Napa County to pay for future consumer fraud investigations and prosecutions, according to District Attorney Gary Lieberstein.
In addition, Sysco will distribute $1 million worth of food to food banks throughout California, including $15,000 worth of food to the Napa Valley Food Bank.
Authorities began to investigate Sysco last July after the NBC news affiliate reported the company’s unsanitary food storage practices. State investigators found Sysco used unsanitary buildings with no refrigeration at dozens of sites. Ten district attorney offices, including the Napa County’s, collaborated in enforcement proceedings.
No one who ate the food became sick, “but the potential for illness was high,” Lieberstein said.
The American Canyon shed was on Lombard Street. It was unregistered, had no freezer and no refrigeration system.
A state investigator in July 2013 found no food in the unit. There was debris, dirt, dust, as well as cardboard and plastic wrap trash on the floor, according to the investigation report from the California Department of Public Health.
As part of the settlement filed in Santa Clara Superior Court, Sysco also agrees to pay $3.3 million to the state of California to pay for inspectors and to enforce food transportation laws, and another $130,000 to cover costs. In addition the defendant had to pay more than $127,000 in investigation costs and another $300,000 in court fees, according to court papers.
“Safe and sanitary steps in food handling are essential to prevent potential harm to consumers – regulations pertaining to food distribution and storage of perishable items are in place to protect consumers and are of the utmost concern. Practices such as those found here engaged in by Sysco Corporation are totally unacceptable and businesses which violate these provisions will be held strictly accountable to the highest level under the law,” Lieberstein said in a press release.
Drene Johnson, executive director at Community Action Napa Valley, which manages the Napa Valley Food Bank, did not know about the settlement with Sysco Thursday afternoon. The food bank has not received the food yet.
“We know nothing about this,” Johnson said. “But we’re thrilled. This will help us a great deal.”
Bill DeLaney, Sysco Corp. president and chief executive officer, said in a written statement Thursday that Sysco was accepting responsibility.
“Food safety is Sysco’s No. 1 priority, and it cannot be compromised. We sincerely regret that some of our California companies failed to adhere to our long-standing policies related to drop sites. The California Department of Public Health and the county district attorneys received our full cooperation in their investigations of our practices.
“In addition to the settlement with the state, we have comprehensively addressed our food safety and quality assurance practices in California and across the Sysco enterprise by putting in place the following positive steps:
“First, as we stated in September 2013, we eliminated the use of drop sites across Sysco. Second, we have introduced mandatory, annual food safety training for all employees across Sysco. Third, we are implementing additional and improved food safety reporting, monitoring and compliance controls across our operations to ensure adherence to our policies.
“Taking these steps reflects Sysco’s commitment to food safety across our enterprise. We accept responsibility for the breakdown in our system in California, and we have taken this opportunity to improve our practices and to re-emphasize to our customers and our employees that food safety is our No. 1 priority.”