Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp sued three Kern County farmers Monday for allegedly applying a restricted pesticide on watermelons that sickened about 250 California consumers last summer.
The civil complaints carry penalties ranging from $45,000 to $162,000, authorities said.
The suits, filed in Kern County Superior Court, allege that ranchers Tim Yaksitch, Jimmie Icardo and his son, Gary Icardo, intentionally applied the pesticide, aldicarb, to watermelon fields, then harvested and shipped the contaminated melons. Yaksitch is also alleged to have applied aldicarb to corn fields.
An attorney for two of the farmers called the allegations "absolute baloney."
The contamination first came to light July 4 when a rash of food poisoning was reported in Southern California. State Department of Food and Agriculture laboratories traced the illnesses to residues of pesticide on watermelons sold in Southland supermarkets.
State officials halted the sale of watermelons and teams of investigators eventually tracked the contaminated melons to Kern County, according to Rex Magee, deputy director of the department. The state imposed a watermelon quarantine, permitting the sale only of melons that received official clearance from the department.
Magee said that civil, rather than criminal charges were filed Monday because the penalties are much higher. "We want to put the squeeze on, we want a message to go out that you can't violate pesticide laws and get away with it," Magee said.
Under criminal law, the misuse of pesticides is a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine for each violation, but up to $3,000 per violation can be assessed under civil law, according to Deputy Atty. Gen. William Cunningham, who will prosecute the case.
Aldicarb, marketed under the trade name Temik, is a soil fumigant used legally on cotton, grain, potatoes, peanut and similar crops but is not registered for use in watermelons or corn.
The complaints filed by Cunningham's office alleged that in addition to using the pesticides illegally, the three growers shipped and sold contaminated melons, failed to notify the county agriculture commissioner that they were using a restricted material, failed to post the fields to warn workers and other technical violations.
An attorney for the farmers denied that they had misused the pesticide.
"They used aldicarb on their cotton, but not on the watermelons," said Eddie Noriega of Bakersfield, who represents the Icardos. "We haven't seen the charges yet, but if they had any proof, it seems they would have filed criminal charges. . . . All of this is absolute baloney."
Neither Yaksitch nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
Magee said the watermelon poisonings last summer resulted in increased authority by the Agriculture Department to enforce laws restricting pesticide use.
For example, inspectors will be going into the farmers' fields next summer for the first time, and will take 8,000 samples, testing specifically for certain pesticides that may be misused, Magee said.