At first glance, 11 years in prison seems a harsh punishment for a Durham man convicted of selling "gluten-free" baked goods that weren't gluten-free. Consider the average minimum sentence imposed for offenders convicted of some other crimes: second-degree murder, 14.8 years; second-degree rape, seven years; armed robbery, about 5 1/2 years, according to the N.C. Sentencing Commission. Raymond Cook, the Raleigh man recently convicted of killing a young woman while driving drunk, received only three years.
But Paul Evan Seelig was found guilty last month of 23 counts of obtaining property by false pretenses and received that 11-year sentence. At his trial, customers of his Great Specialty Products testified that they got sick after eating food that Seelig told them was gluten-free. The North Carolina Agriculture Department soon received an unprecedented number of reports of people falling ill from the breads. More than 20 people were sickened, and a mother who consumed the bread delivered her baby nearly 10 weeks prematurely.
So what's the big deal?
As a mom of two children with severe food allergies, let me give some background. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and oats. People with celiac disease can't digest gluten and become severely ill and malnourished from eating even a trace of it. Prolonged exposure can make celiacs vulnerable to autoimmune diseases and cancer.
About 3 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease, and they are very guarded about where they eat, how they cook and the products they buy. Since the FDA doesn't regulate gluten, celiacs rely on the mercy and integrity of companies that choose to assume the responsibility.
Seelig and his company had neither.
According to court testimony, Seelig spun an elaborate web of lies. First, he claimed his products were homemade. Then he claimed they were specially made at a gluten-free Amish bakery in Ohio. He lifted photos from other bakeries for his website.
He falsified invoices. Investigators could find no evidence that the bakery even existed.
Other times, he advertised that his products were produced in a 150,000- square-foot gluten-free facility near Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and he used a 400-acre farm to grow the grains. He claimed to test regularly for gluten. None of it was true.
A worker testified she repackaged wheat breads Seelig bought from a Costco and a New Jersey bakery to sell as "gluten-free" at the state fair and for home delivery.
Seelig sent threatening correspondence to those who dared expose him. And when investigators caught up to him, Seelig pretended to be someone else, giving a false name and claiming that the man they were looking for (him) had suffered a heart attack, had the flu and was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
There were other lies, too. By the time prosecutors finished untangling them and rendered a guilty verdict, Superior Court Judge Carl Fox admonished Seelig during sentencing by saying "Deceit is part of who Mr. Seelig is." Fox could have sentenced him to 10 to 12 months for each of the 23 counts—equivalent to about 20 years—so technically, Seelig got off light.
My kids didn't eat any of Seelig's products, but to them, a false assurance that food is safe is akin to assault with a deadly weapon. Those with food allergies have no choice but to rely on companies to be honest about their food.
Zach Becker, one of the people sickened by Seelig's bread, agrees. Becker, who blogs for Gluten Free Raleigh, literally broke bread with Seelig for a post two years ago. He said in court that Seelig watched him eat "poison" while assuring him the bread was safe.
"There was not just one victim involved in this court case," Becker says. "There were nearly 30."
I've spoken with numerous celiacs who've likened Seelig's deception to a game of Russian roulette—except that you don't know you're playing.
It's one thing to not know you're causing harm. It's quite another to deliberately cause harm and not give a damn. Seelig intentionally chose to misrepresent his products. He gave zero regard for the consequences.
It's nice to have a system that does care about those consequences.
Joyce Clark Hicks can be reached at email@example.com.