The Rats Be Dead, "The Cats Be Unemployed", But Illegal Pesticide May Send Smugglers to Jail

Twelve people were arrested on federal and state charges September 19, 2011, after an investigation into the sale of illegal, smuggled pesticides in New York's Chinatown according to press reports, press releases from the US Attorney's Office and New York District Attorney's Office, and complaints filed in state and federal court (here and here). According to reports, some of the pesticides contained brodifacoum, a chemical so dangerous, that it is illegal to use it at all in urban areas unless applied by licensed professionals wearing protective gear and using special equipment. Brodifacoum was present in an amount approximately 60 times greater than what federal regulations allow in the seized pesticides. At least it comes in a pretty package: a bright yellow and blue box with Chinese characters and a smiling cartoon cat proclaiming, "The cat be unemployed." But don't let the package fool you. The ingestion of a small vial could kill an adult male. Brodifacoum works as an anticoagulant which causes rodents, or anyone else who may ingest it, to bleed to death internally. In fact, the investigation was kicked off when a woman accidentally ingested a vial, mistaking it for medicine, and lost two-thirds of her blood volume. Judith Enck, the EPA's regional administrator, expressed her concern for how easily the brightly colored, mislabeled packages of deadly poison could be confused for toys or candy by children. District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. indicated that some of the products look and smell like cookie crumbs, making them especially tempting to children. US Attorney Preet Bharara stated, "[a]s alleged, these defendants were literally peddling poison to an unwitting public, putting the health and safety of their customers and their families in jeopardy…the people allegedly responsible for creating this public health risk will be punished." But does the punishment fit the crime? District Attorney Vance doesn't think so, suggesting that legislation may be necessary to allow prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for such crimes, based on the concentrations and quantities sold. For instance, this investigation involved six federal and state agencies, fourteen search warrants, and a five-month long investigation which culminated in the seizure of over 6,000 packages of pesticides from fourteen shops around Chinatown. For all of the resources seemingly poured into this sting operation, and for the significant danger posed to the community from the illegal importation, false labeling, and sale of these pesticides, every single count charged is a misdemeanor (though some defendants were charged with hundreds of counts). The most serious charges, those for the wholesaler and a grocery store owner, were conspiracy to violate the federal laws regulating the distribution and sale of pesticides, and several counts each of selling unregistered pesticides and misbranding pesticides. If convicted they would face a year in prison and a $25,000 fine for each count. The other sales people were charged with selling unregistered pesticides. There is obviously merit in sweeping these dangerous pesticides off the streets, and the punishments may be hefty enough – given the number of counts – to dissuade illegal importers in the future. However, considering the potential harm to consumers, is it possible that misdemeanor charges don't cut it for such pesticide peddlers? If more severe penalties are enacted for such offenses, it is surely a positive for the producers of approved pesticides. In either case, importers and retailers need to exercise extreme caution in monitoring what goes on sale to the public in the face of increased scrutiny. – Marcus Asner and Jacklyn DeMar

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