(Nov. 21) The owner of a leading cantaloupe importer and his son were indicted Nov. 20 on federal charges of impeding the investigation into Viva brand melons that were found to have caused widespread foodborne illness last year.

A federal grand jury in Tucson, Ariz., returned a 66-count indictment against Bob Shipley and his son, Lee Alan Shipley Kunze of Altamirano, Mexico. The two work for Nogales, Ariz.-based Shipley Sales Service Co.

The indictment, charging the two with impeding a government investigation, misrepresenting their supplier and shipping contaminated cantaloupe, was announced in a news release by Paul Charlton, U.S. attorney in Phoenix.

Patrick Schneider, spokesman for the U.S. attorney"s office, said each of the 66 counts carries maximum penalties that range from fines $1,000 to $250,000 and prison terms of one to five years.

However, Shipley said Nov. 22 the indictment isn"t stopping his business and implied the government"s case was weak.

"There are no new developments. They got their indictments after working on it for a year and a half," he said. "We"re continuing in business."

Schneider said the defendants entered not guilty pleas and a trial date has been set for Jan. 14.

However, he said it was not right to assume the grand jury had a hard time coming up with their indictment.

"I don"t think you can assume the grand jury just sat on this investigation," Schneider said.

Shipley said the government, as of Nov. 21, had failed to show its research that pins cantaloupe to outbreaks of foodborne illness. "It"s just an allegation," he said.

In previous seasons, he said the firm has been the top importer of Mexican cantaloupe from December to May.

"That"s where the problem arose. They wanted to make a big splash by going after somebody major," he said.

On May 25, 2001, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers that an outbreak of foodborne illness was associated with cantaloupe imported by Shipley Sales Service. At the time, the FDA said the outbreak of Salmonella poona involved numerous illnesses and two deaths in Arizona, California and 12 other states.

Shipley"s company was not allowed to import cantaloupes in 2002 as a result of the FDA inspection.

Since the end of October, the FDA has placed an countrywide import alert on all Mexican cantaloupe.

Michael Harwin, attorney for Shipley, said that Shipley and Kunze surrendered Nov. 20 in Nogales by previous arrangement with the U.S. attorney"s office, according to a report in Nogales International. Harwin could not be reached the afternoon of Nov. 21.

The federal indictment alleges that in April and May of 2001 the father and son tried to impede and defeat lawful government functions of the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The indictment further alleges that the two tried to conceal the source of the cantaloupes to avoid FDA detention of the cantaloupes and to frustrate the ability of these agencies to trace the source of salmonella virus contamination in cantaloupes to the Legumbrera San Luis firm and the Tziritzicuaro growing area in Michoacán, Mexico.

In addition, the indictment alleges that the two fraudulently imported cantaloupes by causing the Mexican firm names SPR Los Arroyos Vinedos Viva SPR and Viva SPR to be submitted to the Customs Service and the FDA as the source or supplier of the cantaloupes when in fact the listed firms were not the source or supplier of the cantaloupes.

It also is alleges that on or about April 17, the two shipped Mexican cantaloupe that was contaminated with salmonella.

The indictment also contains an allegation of forfeiture for the value of the cantaloupes, about $2.79 million.