Ten men were charged Friday with illegally producing soft cheese in a South-Central Los Angeles residential garage and other outbuildings under what City Atty. James K. Hahn called "primitive and unsanitary" conditions.
Hahn said the clandestine factory, which turned out queso fresco cheese and a sour cream-style milk product called crema , was a "menace to public health" and that the garage housing the processing equipment was infested with cockroaches, flies and ants.
He said the cheese was not refrigerated and most of the queso fresco "wasn't even wrapped."
Three years ago, between 20 and 40 people died of food poisoning after eating soft cheeses produced by a licensed Artesia plant, Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. That plant went out of business and investigators never determined how Jalisco's cheese became contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.
Seven of the defendants in the latest case were arrested Thursday during a raid on three small houses, the garage and sheds in the 5000 block of Ascot Avenue, the city attorney's office said.
One of them, identified as co-ringleader Nasser Saif Alam, 24, of Bell, was arrested a short distance away in a pickup truck full of cheese as he allegedly started out on his regular morning deliveries.
Arrest warrants were being sought for three West Covina men accused of unlawfully supplying the unlicensed factory with milk. They were identified as Edwin Leon Miles, 55, head of Spartan Dairy Inc., and his sons, Harry Edwin Miles, 24, and Dean Arnot Miles, 22.
Arrested Thursday in addition to Alam were Gustavo Hernandez, 43, purportedly the other leader of the operation; Juvenal Morales, 24; Horacio Vieyra, 24; Jose Espejel, 35, and two brothers, Francisco Ortega, 21, and Manuel Ortega, 27.
City and state investigators said they found 565 pounds of queso fresco and 604 pints of crema --all unrefrigerated--as well as 600 gallons of just-delivered milk. The investigators estimated that the group was selling about 600 13-ounce wheels of queso fresco a day.
Hahn called the garage factory "a completely underground operation that had managed to evade any of the licensing, regulations and inspections we have to protect the health of people who were consuming the cheese made there."
Also seized were business records, which Hahn said would be used in an attempt to track down retail outlets selling the illegal cheese to the public.
The seven will be arraigned Monday in Municipal Court on state charges of manufacturing a milk product without a license. Alam and Hernandez were also charged with one count each of manufacturing and offering for sale adulterated foodstuffs without proper labeling.
Hernandez, Morales, Vieyra and Espejel were also charged with one count each of failing to keep a food processing plant free of flies and insects, failing to keep cheese making equipment in a clean and sanitary condition and for using a building where milk products are manufactured for other purposes.
The charges grew out of an investigation by the state Department of Food and Agriculture's Bureau of Milk and Dairy Control, the Food and Drug Branch of the state Department of Health Services, the Los Angeles County Health Services Department and the Los Angeles Police Department.
Illegally manufacturing a milk product without a license carries a maximum term of three months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. The other charges carry maximum penalties of six months in jail.