State: Bread sold as gluten-free wasn't

Staff WriterJanuary 21, 2010 

  • Gluten is a protein found in wheat flour, rye and barley and can be found in various foods and personal hygiene products from bread to shampoo.

    Celiac disease is a genetic disorder triggered by consumption of gluten. If someone with celiac disease eats gluten he can suffer damage to the small intestine, making it impossible to absorb certain nutrients. Symptoms can range in children from bloating to diarrhea and weight loss. Adults are less likely to have digestive symptoms but may show other related health problems from fatigue and joint pain to infertility.

    Nearly one in every 133 Americans suffers from celiac disease, according to a study by the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research in Baltimore.

The N.C. Attorney General's Office says a Durham specialty food company was marketing bread as gluten-free that independent lab tests show contained the protein. Now, the state's lawyers want a judge to shut the company down.

Late Wednesday, the state filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against the company's owner, Paul Seelig. A Superior Court judge will hear the request today at the Wake County courthouse.

The lawsuit says the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services began investigating Seelig after complaints about Great Specialty Products breads that were sold at the N.C. State Fair. The lawsuit details complaints from three consumers who got sick after eating the bread or whose children got sick. Gluten is a protein found in wheat flour that can cause symptoms ranging from rashes to diarrhea for people who have celiac disease.

"We will defend ourselves," Seelig said Wednesday in response to the lawsuit. He said he was confident a judge would side with his company. In an interview this week, Seelig said about his company's bread: "If it really had gluten in it, we would have had numerous complaints."

One of the consumers who complained to North Carolina officials after purchasing bread from Great Specialty Products was Rebecca Fernandez, 26, of Raleigh.

"It was a betrayal," said Fernandez, whose 3-year-old son, Malachy, suffers from celiac disease.

Fernandez purchased about $50 worth of bread from the company in November and December. Fernandez said in an interview that her son developed a rash about two days after eating the bread and that the rash didn't go away until after he stopped. Her son also developed unusual bowel movements.

Two other customers who say they got sick are identified in the lawsuit: Chris Taylor of Raleigh, who suffered an itchy rash to her face and torso, and Tara Muller of Cary, who became nauseated and began vomiting.

Fernandez says she didn't connect her son's symptoms to the company's bread until others in the gluten-free community either complained about getting sick or blogged about the company's breads testing positive.

Home testing the bread

One blogger, Fred Lybrand, 33, of Chapel Hill, wrote that he tested seven breads bought from Great Specialty Products, and all of them tested positive for gluten. Six were tested using home kits and the seventh was sent to a third party for testing.

Fernandez also wrote about her son's sickness and her own testing of the bread she purchased from Great Specialty Products on her own blog.

State agriculture officials sent samples of the bread that Fernandez and Taylor purchased to a laboratory at the University of Nebraska, where test results indicated the presence of gluten. Professor Steven Taylor, who oversees the Nebraska lab, said in an e-mail message that the testing couldn't determine whether the bread had simply been cross-contaminated or whether it was made with wheat, barley or other ingredients that contain gluten.

This isn't the first time Seelig has been in court. Seelig, 47, of 3105 Cardinal Lake Drive in Durham, was convicted of fraud in 2001 in federal court in Montana. He served four months in prison and was placed on probation for three years. Details from the case file were not immediately available. Seelig said it involved business bank deposits during a bitter divorce proceeding.

Seelig, who says he was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, said he started looking for a way to make tasty gluten-free bread after his son, then 8, was diagnosed with diabetes and Crohn's disease. "

The company's Web site, www.greatspecialty products.com , said it took two years of testing before Seelig discovered a way to make "exceptional" gluten-free bread. The site said: "He continues his mission to make all children suffering from digestive problem feel the same as the other kids."

Seelig said neither Fernandez nor Taylor complained to him about the product or asked for their money back, and he disputed Muller's accounts of her illnesses. He said the bread could have been contaminated by the customers before testing. Seelig says numerous loaves of the same breads that Taylor and Fernandez ordered - seven-grain and foccacia - were delivered to other customers, including four doctors' offices. Seelig said no one complained, and his staff even called the doctors' offices to see if any patients had.

The attorney general's lawsuit also alleges that Seelig sent a letter threatening legal action using the name and letterhead of a fictitious law firm, and that he introduced himself to state employees as "Jeff Gleason."

Seelig on Wednesday said the allegation of a false identity is "absolutely not true."

Seelig said he and Gleason just look alike.

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

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