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National scheme to feed inmates diluted spices uncovered at SC federal prison

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The spice of a healthier life (copy)

A company from Pennsylvania is facing a federal lawsuit in South Carolina for selling cinnamon, chili powder and other spices to federal prisons that were cut with starch, flour and other fillers. File/Staff

The food in prison might be worse than you thought. 

Federal prosecutors in South Carolina accused a supply company this week of diluting spices that were fed to federal prisoners in order to undercut the bidding process for those products.

The company, according to a new false-claims lawsuit, made representations that the spices they were selling to federal prisons in South Carolina and across the United States were pure. 

But prosecutors in Columbia allege FlavorPros LLC intentionally cut shipments of basil, thyme, cinnamon, pepper, paprika, garlic powder and other spices with fillers in order to underbid other businesses. 

That allowed the company, which is based in Pennsylvania, to cash in on more than half a million dollars in federal procurement contracts, according to federal prosecutors. 

The new civil lawsuit seeks to recoup the money the  government spent on the diluted spices. FlavorPros was owned and operated by Charlene Brach, a resident of Warren, N.J.

Brach was charged by federal prosecutors in South Carolina last year for allegedly adulterating and misbranding the spices she sold to some of the 122 prisons across the country. She now stands accused of "unjust enrichment" by misleading the federal government. 

When reached by phone on Tuesday, Brach said she was unaware the lawsuit had been filed against her. 

"That's unfortunate," she said. 

Brach denied diluting any of the spices that were sold to the federal prisons. Her company didn't produce the spices, she said. It only sold them to the federal government. If the spices were cut, it wasn't her company's fault, she added.  

"I'm not guilty at all," she said. 

Federal prosecutors allege Brach either personally cut the spices with fillers or directed employees at FlavorPros to dilute the spices for her. In doing so, they allege, the business willfully violated federal law on at least 202 bids it submitted to more than 80 federal prisons. 

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The alleged scheme stretched on from at least October 2011 to December 2017, according to the federal court records. 

It was only uncovered after inspectors with the Department of Justice and criminal investigators with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sampled some of the spices that were used at the federal prison in Edgefield in 2017. 

That testing showed that some of the spices that FlavorPros sold were dramatically altered with starch, flour and other material. 

Some of the cinnamon, pepper and garlic powder that was tested by federal authorities contained more fillers than actual spices, according to the lawsuit. Those spices were used in the more than 400,000 meals that federal prisons serve to inmates across the country every day. 

After government officials caught on, they temporarily banned FlavorPros from contracting with federal agencies. The federal government later allowed the company to continue operations but began requiring testing for all of its shipments. 

The company won several more bids with the federal government but never actually fulfilled those contracts. 

Instead, Brach started a new food supply company called Artisan Foods LLC, according to federal court records. That business was incorporated at her son's home in New Jersey. 

The new company soon began supplying a federal institution in Minnesota with Italian and ranch dressing.

The labeling on the salad dressings suggested the product was made by Artisan Foods. But federal officials later peeled back the label and found the dressings were a product of FlavorPros, the earlier company.  

"Artisan Foods was merely a stand-in for FlavorPros," the complaint alleges. 

Both companies are now wrapped up in the ongoing lawsuit. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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