FDA seizes $1.5 million worth of ingredients, citing contamination and filth

Connections to food and pet companies may warrant further investigation

U.S. Marshals seized millions of dollars worth of ingredients on May 7 2009 from American Mercantile Corporation, based in Memphis Tennessee. During an inspection of the company in March, FDA investigators discovered evidence of extensive rodent and insect infestation throughout the company's warehouse, which the company failed to correct.

American Mercantile stores and processes food ingredients, which are sold or used in the dietary supplements, food, tea and pet food manufacturing industries. The seized articles include food products such as sarsaparilla, spearmint leaves, cornstarch, sweet orange peels powder, licorice powder, sassafras, and salt.

American Mercantile Corp. declined comment. Damon Arney is the president of the company on record, according to organic certification and FDA documents.

FDA claims there are no reports of illness associated with consumption of the products containing American Mercantile sourced ingredients. Further investigation by Functional Ingredients magazine revealed that Damon Arney is president and owner of Ingredients Corporation of America (ICA), a food manufacturing facility, and he own Herbs for Horses, an equine and pet products company. As such, Functional Ingredients contacted the FDA field office in Memphis to inquire if the investigation will expand to human and pet foods but they were closed at the time of publication.

ICA, a specialty soup mix and spice company, is a Memphis-based wholly-owned subsidiary of American Mercantile Corp. According the company web site, Ingredient Corp. distributes to 80 countries and sells the Barzi Brand products, which are available online and in supermarkets, including Kroger Delta region, Kehe Food Distributing in the Midwest, Gourmet Award in the Southeast, DPI Distributing, Haddon House Foods in the East, Value Merchandisers, Millbrook Distributing and Giannini Foods in the Mid-South.

Since 2000, Ingredients Corporation began phasing out their bulk spice business and remade itself into a custom blend spice company with the assistance of parent company American Mercantile. Robert Burgess, then president and chief operating officer told the Memphis Business Journal in 2000, "Since American Mercantile was already importing other plant products from exotic locations, it was a natural step to add cultivated spices to the product mix." Since then the company purchased the Barzi brand of dried soup mixes and ramped up a private label spice company under the Memphi brand.

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American Mercantile apparently also has links to pet and equine foods. According to a story on herbs4horses.com, American Mercantile is a parent company of Herbs for Horses, an herbal product company for the equine and pet market. American Mercantile's ability to source ingredients for equine and pet foods is what attracted Don Silver, Manager of Equine Science to sell his company to American Mercantile in 2006. In a 2006 interview with Equine Journal, Silver said, "American Mercantile has a solid 20-year history in the import business, offering herbs from all over the world, ranging from soothing aloe to bitter, pungent zedoary root and hundreds of others in between. With American Mercantile as our parent company, we have continuing access to a large supply of fresh, high-quality herbs from all over the world."

No one at Ingredients Corporation of America or Herbs for Horses was available for comment at the time of publication, but the ownership affiliation between these two companies and American Mercantile gives rise to the question about whether contaminated ingredients are in finished foods and pet products.

The seizure of goods on Thursday was based on a warrant issued by the US District Court in Memphis; U.S. Marshals seized all FDA-regulated food products exposed to rodent and insect contamination at the facility. The seized products violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because they were held under insanitary conditions under which they may have become contaminated.

According to the most recent certification records for Quality Certification Services (QCS), a Florida based organic certifier, American Mercantile's organic certification is due for renewal but inspectors have not yet visited the company to start this year's renewal process. The third party certifier, QCS, is operated by the Florida Organic Growers Association based in Gainesville.

The manner in which organic certification works is the certification does not expire, but it can be revoked in cases such as this. In regard to facility cleanliness, QCS says that one make or break component of organic certification is official confirmation of a sanitation inspection from a health inspector or health department from the given state.

"If there is anything to be learned from this, it's that this is a very visible example of a system that needs improvement. Better communication is needed from FDA, third-party certifiers and the National Organic Program and vice versa," says Marty Mesh, Executive Director of QCS. Mesh says had he known about this from FDA in March, his organization could have taken action with unannounced inspections to verify or resolve outstanding problems.

According to QCS the company was certified (in the past) for handling and wild harvesting of these organic ingredients:

  • Acer spicatum (Mountain Maple Bark),
  • Achillea millefolium (Common Yarrow),
  • Aletris farinose (Whitetube Stargrass),
  • Aralia racemosa (American Spikenard).

In a statement about the raid, Michael Chappell, the FDA's acting associate commissioner for regulatory affairs said, "FDA will not tolerate a company's failure to adequately control and prevent filth in its facility. The FDA is prepared to use whatever legal means are necessary and appropriate to keep potentially contaminated products out of the marketplace."

Given that salt was among the eccentric list of ingredients seized by FDA, it is possible that American Mercantile salt may be used for Memphi brands Blessed Christian Salt. According to some company statements—tongue in cheek—the salt is the antithesis of kosher salt—a sea salt that has been blessed by an Episcopalian priest. Proceeds benefit Christian charities, but no word on whether the salt will protect the company from further government action.

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