Company accused of selling juice with high arsenic levels to school lunch program has long history of rodent issues and poor sanitary practices

The FDA says a Washington state juice supplier is accused of inadequately monitoring toxic heavy metals. That could pose serious health risks to children, experts say.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking a fruit juice processor to court over numerous alleged health and sanitation violations, which it says resulted in juices high in toxic heavy metals. These products were then distributed through multiple avenues, including three million servings per year to children via the national school lunch program. The agency is asking the U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington to stop Valley Processing of Sunnyside, Washington, from producing any more juice unless it shores up its standards.

According to FDA’s lawsuit filed last Friday, Valley Processing, which manufactures apple, pear, and grape juices, ignored years of notifications from inspectors about issues that put drinkers at risk of consuming products that were “injurious to health.” (You might want to set aside any food you’re eating while you read this one.) A deeper dive into the complaint reveals a history of alarming allegations, including unsanitary facilities ridden with rodents and birds, dead and alive, as well as their feces. 

Juice processors—much like any other facility that processes and packages food—are obligated under food safety law to meet minimum sanitation standards, known formally as “current good manufacturing practices.” In addition, they’re required to maintain a food safety plan, better known by the more intimidating official term, a Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan. The former ensures basic precautions against contamination, such as rules around hair net use and pest control. The latter is a blueprint that helps processors monitor common food safety risks such as high levels of toxins. According to FDA, Valley Processing violated food safety laws by falling short on both fronts.

These products were then distributed through multiple avenues, including three million servings per year to children through the national school lunch program.

“Defendants’ juice products are adulterated … in that they have been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have been contaminated with filth, or whereby they may have been rendered injurious to health,” the lawsuit reads. It adds that Valley Processing’s products were made with ingredients “otherwise unfit for food.”

Such a lack of oversight can pose both short- and long-term health risks for drinkers, said Randy Worobo, a food science professor at Cornell University, who specializes in juice processing and has trained both FDA inspectors and food producers on HACCP. This is particularly true for children, who he points out are “considered immunocompromised because their immune systems aren’t fully developed.”

The company’s president, Mary Ann Bliesner, has previously said that it sold fruit juice to bottling and jelly companies nationwide, including major clients like Safeway, Kroger, and Jamba Juice. 

In an email, attorney for Valley Processing Lillian Hardy said that the company primarily sold its juices to middlemen, which then conducted secondary processing: “Valley Processing is confident the juice sold by its customers was in full compliance with the FDA guidance.” But Worobo says food processors can’t simply pass the buck on food safety standards to other companies further down the supply chain.

FDA’s lawsuit documents years of apparent violations dating back to 2015. (It seems that Valley Processing had numerous opportunities to clean up its act—maybe one too many.) Throughout the years, the agency says that inspectors have documented “live and dead animals, including mice, rats, squirrels, and birds, throughout various buildings used for both storage and manufacturing”; the mixing of “leftover sludge” from the bottom of juice barrels with newer product to hide contamination; and the use of moldy apples to make juice. In their most recent review, inspectors also noted that the company failed to properly monitor levels of the common toxins inorganic arsenic and patulin; the former is a carcinogen which can come from pesticide use and the latter from rotten fruit.

While it’s relatively uncommon for FDA to take food processors to court over regulatory violations, that’s because most companies—when alerted to issues—simply address them.

Hardy also called FDA’s lawsuit misleading because it “creates the erroneous impression [that] juice sold into the school lunch exceeded government guidance for patulin and inorganic arsenic. It did not.” (It goes without saying that a processor can only guarantee that its juice is non-toxic if it actually tracks toxin levels—which FDA says Valley Processing failed to do.)

And while it’s relatively uncommon for FDA to take food processors to court over regulatory violations, that’s because most companies—when alerted to issues—simply address them, Warboro said.

“If you take a look at all the juice processors in the United States, the majority of them comply with FDA,” he said. Lawsuits are typically a last resort for the agency, he added, akin to sending a student to the principal’s office after “repeated bad behavior that doesn’t change.”

Hardy said that the company has sold off its assets and plans to shut down permanently in response to the lawsuit. Valley Processing and FDA have also entered a consent decree, in which the company has agreed to destroy any juice it has left over and pay FDA for investigation costs related to the case, though that agreement still needs a judge’s signature.

According to local paper Sunnyside Sun, Bliesner, the president, announced in September that she was shuttering operations and selling its facilities, “so that I can retire.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.