DES MOINES, Iowa — A consumer complaint has led to an ongoing investigation of a central Iowa meat market, which was found operating without a license, and with products allegedly stored at unsafe temperatures and in unsanitary conditions.
That’s according to compliance officers with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s (IDALS) Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau investigating Lambert & Ewers Smoked Meats in Boone.
“If you are required to have a license and do not have one, as in the case here, and you are selling products to the public, the state can take steps to remove your products from the marketplace, as well,” said Jennifer Williams Zwagerman, associate director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University Law School in Des Moines.
The incident, which was reported last month, has spurred a massive recall by Lambert & Ewers, with state officials asking the public not to consume any of the company’s products.
“If you have purchased any meat or poultry products from this facility or bearing this label, we recommend those products not be consumed,” a Dec. 23 IDALS statement read. “We have received no reports of illnesses at this time.”
IDALS said review of business records had shown products were sold at a pickup location in Des Moines for home delivery, and through internet sales through the company’s website. The recall has resulted in the temporary closure of its Boone and downtown Des Moines stores, as well as the website (www.4hams.com) being shut down until further notice.
“In this case, it appears as though the company is cooperating in a recall of all food products, which removes the need for the state to take those steps,” Zwagerman added.
With few exceptions, she said, most any type of food production or processing plant is going to be required to be licensed – even if sales are only occurring within the state. “Requiring a license and registration is a matter of protecting the public health and ensuring that food is being produced, stored and sold to the public is safe.”
If something were to happen related to a food product, a license and registration process for food products provides a way to trace back the source of a health concern related to food.
“There are many resources available through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Food & Consumer Safety Bureau that can provide businesses basic information regarding requirements and the need (or lack of a need) for licensure or inspection,” she explained.
Zwagerman said there are potential criminal penalties for operating without a license and for putting adulterated food products into the market. “Charges could include fraud and misdemeanors ranging from simple to serious,” she said.
“When it comes to issues of food safety, there is no shortage of cases in the news related to civil cases against food manufacturers engaged in alleged fraudulent or unsafe practices, and that is something on the radar of most food companies.”
When it comes to operating a food-related or consumer product-related business, she said checking to make sure a company has any required licenses is a matter of good risk management and business operations.
“Smaller entities – those not selling directly to the public, and those selling goods not deemed ‘potentially hazardous’ – may find there is not a need to register with the state and obtain a license,” she said, “but it is best not to make that assumption without verification. As your company changes or grows, it is important to verify that so it does not impact the need for a license or inspection as well.”
However, Zwagerman said not all food-related companies are required to have a license.
“Not having a license itself is not necessarily a concern. The concern comes when a company is failing to meet whatever requirements the regulating entity has determined is needed to protect the public, and yet continues to sell products. That raises concerns related to health and safety, and questions as to why they have failed to comply with the law.”
Her advice to all food companies – even those operating just on a local basis – is to “never assume you don’t need to be licensed to sell your products. Be sure to check out the rules and regulations of your state, and if you are selling across state lines, the federal regulations, as well. Seeking the advice of legal counsel is always recommended – both during initial startup and when changes are being made, through different product lines or expansion or growth.
“Ensuring compliance with state and federal regulations is a way to protect your business, as well as the public,” she added.
The business owner, Bruce Lambert, could not be reached for comment on this article by press time.