Durham man who sold fake gluten-free bread gets 11 years in prison

Staff writerApril 12, 2011 

— The Durham man was sentenced today to 11 years in prison for falsely representing bake goods he sold at street fairs and on the Internet as gluten-free, sickening more than two dozen customers.

Paul Seelig, 48, was found guilty Monday of 23 counts of obtaining property by false pretense after a trial in which he was painted as a prolific liar.

A handful of his former customers attended the two-week trial in Wake County Superior Court, and several testified against him.

On Tuesday many of those customers returned to hear Judge Carl Fox sentence Seelig. They were joined by officials from the state agriculture department, which investigated the case, and even members of the jury.

Gluten is a protein in grains such as wheat and barley that can trigger symptoms in people with celiac disease. Several of his customers with the disease testified during the trial that Seelig’s products had made them ill. One woman said that she had delivered her baby prematurely, something that can be triggered in celiac patients by exposure to gluten.

Seelig’s company, Great Specialty Products, sold baked items that he claimed were homemade. Instead, witnesses including a former employee testified, he bought bread from a commercial baker in New Jersey and bagels from retailers such as Costco. He then repackaged them in his home kitchen and sold them at the State Fair, street fairs and by home delivery.

He advertised that the bread was made in a 150,000-square-foot commercial kitchen and that the company raised its own grains on a 400-acre farm.

He sold some of those products as gluten-free, though they weren’t. Customers and investigators tested the products and found high levels of gluten. Seelig claimed that he tested his bread for gluten weekly, though he couldn’t produce test records for the trial. He also maintained that he got his gluten-free products from an Amish baker in Ohio, who had no phone, no street or e-mail address, and said that he paid in cash, so there were no payment records.

About one in every 133 Americans have celiac disease, one study found, and Seelig’s trial was followed around the nation by members of the celiac community.

Gluten-free products sell at premium prices, but there is no federal standard for them, so Seelig’s conviction was an unusual courtroom victory for celiac sufferers, who have to rely on the honesty of food companies and restaurants that claim to produce products without gluten.

Jay.price@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4526

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