Local News

Durham bread company owner sentenced for fraud

Posted April 12, 2011 6:01 a.m. EDT
Updated April 12, 2011 6:12 p.m. EDT

— Durham bread company owner found guilty of fraud for selling products that made dozens of customers ill was sentenced Tuesday to between nine and 11 years in prison.

A jury on Monday found Paul Evan Seelig, 48, owner of Great Specialty Bread Co., guilty of 23 counts of fraud. He has also been ordered to pay restitution to some of his victims.

"Deceit is part of who Mr. Seelig is," Superior Court Judge Carl Fox said during the sentencing hearing.

Seelig admitted during testimony last week that he lied when state investigators asked him about the products he sold as gluten-free. Defense attorneys said he did not deliberately mislead customers and blamed the inconsistencies on his supplier.

Many of Seelig's customers have Celiac disease, and ingesting gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye, can cause them symptoms ranging from diarrhea and abdominal pain to irritability, depression and the deterioration of stomach lining. Celiac sufferers carefully monitor their diet to avoid foods with gluten.

Seelig's customers originally brought their claims to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which turned the information over to Wake County District Attorney Colon Willioughby.

"When people knowingly put adulterated or contaminated food in the food chain and they know it's going to cause injury, I think it ought to be dealt with harshly," Willioughby said.

Fox said Tuesday that Seelig showed arrogance when testifying during the trial. He noted that customers trusted Seelig and thought he was their friend. Fox said he could understand why customers were so angry.

"In this court's mind, for you to have done what you did to these folks, you might as well have stabbed them. You might as well have beaten them," Fox said.

Seelig's attorney, Blake Norman, asked for leniency, given Seelig’s poor health and apparent mental problems.

“Clearly, there’s something mentally wrong with him, to be in business seven years and think that he could get away with this and could never get caught. I don't think throwing someone in prison will help solve that. He needs long-term cognitive therapy, and that’s not something get in prison," Norman said.

Fox said he had a hard time believing Seelig's claims of health issues.

As part of Seelig's sentence, he will undergo a mental evaluation. Fox also wants a health screen done on Seelig to determine if he is actually allergic to gluten, as he repeatedly claimed to his customers.

During the course of the trial, jurors heard from 23 customers who bought Great Specialty bread, only to be sickened after eating it.

Among those who testified was a pregnant woman whose stomach lining had deteriorated so badly from Celiac disease that she wasn't taking in enough nutrients for her child. She said the disease caused her to have a premature child. 

Two of Seelig's customers spoke during the sentencing hearing.

"He gave me samples of what he led me to believe were gluten-free bread products," victim Zach Becker said. "He sat across the table from me and watched me eat poison."

Becker said for two weeks he ate Seelig's products and wrote about it on his blog devoted to living gluten-free. 

During the sentencing hearing, Seelig apologized to his victims. 

"I wish I could turn the clock back to 2009 and change my actions," he said. “I hope in their faith and in their hearts they have room for forgiveness. I pray each day that they will forgive me."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate gluten labeling or levels.

"What we would hope is that this case becomes an illustration of why the federal government does need to move forward with determining what that level is because people can be harmed," state agriculture department spokesman Brian Long said.