RALEIGH — When Paul Seelig, the Durham "baker" who sold bogus gluten-free bread that sickened dozens of people, was sentenced to up to 11 years in prison in Wake Superior Court on Tuesday, a digital cheer erupted from the nation's celiac community.
It wasn't just that a man whose case was followed on dozens of celiac- and gluten-related blogs and message boards was going to prison. It was also that state agriculture investigators and prosecutors were willing to tackle the case in the first place.
"Good deal," wrote a poster from Owatonna, Minn., who goes by the name Celiabetic on the Glutenfree.com forum. "Nice to know someone has our back on top of the precedent it sets."
An estimated one in 133 Americans has celiac disease. Sufferers can become ill with a host of symptoms after consuming gluten, a protein in grains such as wheat and barley.
Gluten-free products sell at premium prices, but there is no federal standard for them and labeling is voluntary. 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.
The dozens of blogs and message boards devoted to celiac disease often have an underdog, we've-got-to-help-ourselves-because-no-one-else-will tone, along with the tips and information such as what restaurants and shops offer gluten-free foods.
Seelig's case was a popular topic in that world for more than a year. Bloggers on sites such as Gluten Freedom Atlanta, Gluten-Free Faces or The Savvy Celiac opined on the case themselves or linked to mainstream media coverage.
Zach Becker, who writes the GlutenFree Raleigh blog, said he follows more than 100 blogs that deal with gluten issues and corresponds with gluten-free activists and advocacy groups.
There are so many blogs, Becker said, because often those suffering from the disease get little more from their doctors than a diagnosis and instructions to avoid gluten, but little about how to do that.
"They can't tell you much about how, so there's no traditional means to learn it, and so you have to learn from blogs and message boards and Twitter," he said.
Avoiding gluten isn't as simple as not eating wheat bread. The protein can appear in other foods or even products such as shampoo. Restaurants that try to cook without gluten can easily cross-contaminate by doing things such as using the same surfaces to prepare foods with gluten and those without.
A victim speaks
All of the most popular blogs followed Seelig's case, he said.
Becker was one of Seelig's customers who got sick, and he publicized the case heavily on his blog, testified during the trial and, just before Seelig was sentenced, read a statement to the court that included this:
"This case needs to stand as a deterrent to others who might follow in Paul Seelig's footsteps and defraud and poison Gluten Free consumers. Companies need to know that this type of behavior will not be tolerated."
Customers testified during the trial that Seelig's products triggered symptoms that included rashes, nausea and diarrhea. One woman said that she had delivered her baby prematurely, something that can be triggered in celiac patients by exposure to gluten.
Seelig, 48, was sentenced to at least nine years in prison and could serve as many as 11 years. He 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.
Not baked - repackaged
Among other things, he advertised his baked goods as homemade. Instead, witnesses including a former employee, testified that he bought bread from a commercial bakery 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, at street fairs and by home delivery.
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 email address, and said that he paid in cash, so there were no payment records.
Several of Seelig's former customers had attended the trial as spectators or witnesses and returned Tuesday to hear Judge Carl Fox sentence Seelig. They were joined by officials from the state agriculture department and some members of the jury, who had been dismissed after finding Seelig guilty Monday.
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