RALEIGH — The Durham baker accused of misrepresenting bread as gluten-free and sickening more than a dozen customers acknowledged in court Friday that he had lied about his identity to investigators, hyped a business run from his house as a commercial operation with a bakery the size of a shopping center, and sold baked goods bought from out-of-state companies as "homemade."
But, Paul Seelig said, he did not knowingly sell bread with gluten in it as "gluten-free."
"Why would I go out and potentially put something in something that would make people sick?" Seelig said.
Seelig, owner of Great Speciality Products, testified for more than three hours Friday in Wake Superior Court as his two-week trial wound down. He was arrested in February 2010 and faces more than two dozen counts of obtaining property by false pretenses.
His company sold bread and bagels from booths at the N.C. State Fair, the fairgrounds flea market, various street festivals and by home delivery.
Earlier, witnesses said he had repackaged regular breads from a commercial bakery in New Jersey and bagels from Costco and Sam's Club and sold them as free of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
Gluten can damage the intestines of people who have celiac disease, rendering them unable to absorb nutrients. About 1 in every 133 people in the United States has the disease, which can lead to auto-immune disorders and an increased risk for some cancers. They seek out gluten-free products, which typically sell for a premium.
Seelig said that he indeed resold bread from the New Jersey bakery, but not as gluten-free. His gluten-free bread, he said, came from an Amish baker in Ohio.
Investigators have been unable to find the Amish baker. Invoices from that baker bore no street address or telephone number, Seelig said, because of the nature of the Amish community. There weren't normal payment records because shipments, he said, were paid for in cash, via COD.
Seelig said he had been puzzled by reports that customers were getting sick. The first woman to complain told him she had felt ill immediately after taking a bite. He said the majority of the complaints came only after publicity on the Internet and in the media, and without the customers calling him.
"I don't know if they got sick or not," he said. "I'd really like to know."
Earlier in the trial, one of Seelig's customers with celiac disease testified that she ate his breads and bagels and didn't get sick, and that she was confident the baked goods she bought were safe.
Others, though, testified that they had gotten rashes and diarrhea, and one said she had given birth prematurely, a possible complication for celiac patients who ingest gluten.
State Department of Agriculture investigators said that when they went to Seelig's house after the complaints, he identified himself as Jeff Gleason and claimed that Seelig had suffered a potentially fatal heart attack and was in a California hospital. They said Seelig maintained the fake identity for several meetings.
Seelig said Friday that he had indeed given them the fake name because he was angry and frustrated, and felt like they had ambushed him by appearing minutes after other agriculture officials had grilled him on the phone. He said he now realizes that doing so was stupid.
At the end of the day, Judge Carl Fox dropped one of counts against Seelig but left the others in place.
Closing arguments in the case are expected Monday.
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