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Bread company owner takes the stand in defense

Paul Evan Seelig, owner of bread company Great Specialty, is on trial on charges he knowingly sold bread advertised as being gluten-free - even though tests showed the food as having high levels of the substance.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A bread company owner on Thursday defended himself against the charge that he sold products falsely labeled as gluten-free, causing dozens of customers to fall ill.

Paul Evan Seelig, owner of Great Specialty Bread Co., is on trial for fraud.

Prosecutors claim Seelig, 48, of 3105 Cardinal Lake Drive in Durham, lied to customers and lied when an investigator from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services visited his Durham home for an inspection.

"The number of complaints we received against this one company was completely unprecedented. (We) never had this many first-person accounts from people about products from one particular company," Brett Weed, an investigator with the department's Food & Drug Protection Division, testified Thursday during the trial.

As Weed and a colleague tried to investigate the complaints, he said, Seelig claimed he was gravely ill and even used an alias to avoid their questions.

Weed testified that, when he tracked Great Specialty to Seelig's Durham home, Seelig came to the door shirtless and claimed to be Jeff Gleason, an employee. The man who called himself Gleason, Weed said, told investigators that Seelig had a heart attack, cancer and the flu and could not be reached. 

Weed said the man he met as Gleason was the defendant.

"It is still kind of shocking that he would go to the trouble of creating an alias for our dealings," he said.

Investigators tried and failed to locate the farm where Seelig claimed to get his bread, Weed said. 

The prosecution has called 25 angry customers, many of them sufferers of Celiac disease, who testified that they bought Great Specialty products in the belief they were safe to eat. Some said they talked to Seelig personally about their concerns only to be reassured that he made his own gluten-free bread and had his facility tested weekly.

Meanwhile, Seelig told investigators that he was merely a distributor and that Great Specialty never made anything, Weed said. 

People with Celiac disease have negative reactions to gluten, which can range from diarrhea and abdominal pain to irritability and depression. In order to avoid those symptoms, they must carefully monitor their diet and avoid foods with gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. 

Seelig's testimony began late Thursday with some preliminary questions. He is expected to return to the stand Friday morning. The defense has only one other witness, sources say. She is expected to say that she ate Great Specialty bread and did not get sick. 


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