How a spice scammer allegedly fleeced the federal government out of thousands of dollars worth of garlic powder
Expired dressing and adulterated cinnamon: Spices purchased for the Bureau of Prisons were mostly filler.
We’ve argued on this website that a little food fraud here and there is not necessarily so bad for us. A few wood chips in a canister of parmesan? Extra fiber, prevents clumping. Mislabeled fish? Usually, no one notices. Most oregano, one study indicates, contains at least a little nontoxic “bulking agent.”
Sometimes, though, food is more supplement than spice. That was the case in a complaint filed in 2019 by federal prosecutors in South Carolina that alleged the company FlavorPros, along with its owners and affiliates, was scamming the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by adding supplements like flour and starch to the spices it sold the agency (purchased, of course, with taxpayer money). U.S. Attorney Peter McCoy, Jr. announced on Tuesday the case had been settled for $250,000. It included no admission of wrongdoing.
Here’s how the “fraudulent scheme” allegedly worked: It started when FlavorPros owner Charlene Brach secured contracts for BOP facilities in South Carolina and elsewhere with the promise of very cheap garlic powder, oregano, cinnamon, and other spices. The contracts stipulated that the spices be “pure,” a requirement Brach apparently ignored, proceeding to deliver products that were, on average, less than half real spice.
The contracts stipulated that the spices be “pure,” a requirement Brach apparently ignored, proceeding to deliver products that were, on average, less than half real spice.
After securing the contracts, according to the complaint, Brach allegedly ordered spices from other sources. She didn’t pay attention to whether the spices had already been adulterated before they got to FlavorPros HQ, and then she added more bulking agents. She claims to have fluffed them up by “up to 25 percent” with additives like starch and flour, though she did not rely on any formula, basing the decisions, instead, on her “eyes and experience.”
Between 2011 and 2017, the federal government paid at least $530,254.35 to FlavorPros and its affiliates for 202 invoices spanning 80 Bureau of Prisons facilities. All of those invoices, the November 2019 complaint alleges, represented false claims of spice purity made by the company. (According to federal spending website USA Spending, the invoices for doctored food represent a fraction of all FlavorPros’ business: The company won nearly 600 contracts worth $2.4 million over a several-year period.)
Brach was caught in May 2017 when the Food and Drug Administration Forensic Chemistry Center tested samples of some of the spices delivered by Brach’s company to a facility in South Carolina. The cinnamon contained, on average, 66 percent additives. Garlic powder was, on average, 64 percent additives. Black pepper was 57 percent additives.
This isn’t the first time investigators have found egregious issues with the Bureau of Prisons supply chain.
The grift did not stop there, even after Brach’s company was suspended from selling to the federal government. According to the complaint, the Brach family set up another company, Artisan Foods, LLC, using the home address of one family member. Artisan Foods then won a contract to sell Italian salad dressing to the government.
But once the salad dressing was delivered—to FMC Rochester, in October 2018—someone (literally) peeled back the label. Beneath the Artisan Foods sticker was another, from FlavorPro. And the covered-up label revealed that the dressing had expired months earlier.
Nothing in the complaint suggested that the adulterated spices presented any food safety concerns, and it may be relatively common for manufacturers to adulterate spices, even at adulteration levels exceeding 50 percent. Yet this isn’t the first time investigators have found egregious issues with the Bureau of Prisons supply chain: in 2019, a Texas meat company pleaded guilty to selling $1 million worth of adulterated and uninspected beef to the government. A watchdog report in 2020 also found several instances of vendor adulteration and recommended that the Bureau of Prisons develop a quality assurance plan.
No word yet on whether the Brachs will be banned from selling to the federal government in the future.