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The 99 Only Stores to pay largest penalty ever

OW Staff | 9/15/2010, 5 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.-A federal judge ordered 99¢ Only Stores to pay $409,490 in penalties for the sale of illegal unregistered and misbranded pesticides contained in household products.

The case against the retail chain concerned the sale of three cleaning and pest control products.

Out of a total of 166 violations, 164 involved the sale of a household cleaner called "Bref Limpieza y Disinfección Total con Densicloro." [Bref Complete Cleaning and Disinfection with Densicloro®], which was not registered with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), despite pesticidal claims on the label. The product was imported from Mexico and made statements in Spanish that it disinfects or sanitizes surfaces.

The other two products involved were "Farmer's Secret Berry & Produce Cleaner," an unregistered pesticide, and "PiC BORIC ACID Roach Killer III," which was misbranded because EPA-approved labels were upside-down or inside out, making them hard to read.

The fine is the largest contested penalty ever ordered by an EPA administrative law judge against a product retailer under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
"All pesticide distributors--discounters and high-end retailers alike--must comply with the law.

This company's disregard for state and federal law in its business practices has led to a penalty that reflects the seriousness of the violations," said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA's regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest.

According to the judge's decision, the discount retail chain showed disregard for consumer safety, because after the initial decision was made, they conducted a voluntary retail that took more than 10 months to implement and complete.

FIFRA is a federal law that regulates the sale, distribution, and use of pesticides. And any products that claims to kill bacterial fungi and others such organisms are considered pesticides. Before selling a pesticide in the United States, companies must register it with the EPA. Each producer, seller and distributor must also ensure that the registered pesticide is labeled according to agency requirements.

Registration sends the products through a vetting process, say EPA officials and requires the appropriate labeling so that consumers are aware of potential product and chemical interactions.
"Consumers who bring cleaning products into their homes expect them to be safe and effective, with clear labeling that gives them the facts," said Kathy Taylor, associate director of the Communities and Ecosystems Division in the EPA's regional office. "This penalty should send a deterrent message to retailers that they must comply with the law regulating pesticides."

The 99¢ Only Stores illegally sold at least 658 bottles of the "Bref" product at stores in California, Arizona and Nevada. The violations were discovered during multiple inspections by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Nevada Department of Agriculture from 2004 to 2008.

In the decision assessing the penalty, the judge concluded, "It is the opinion of this Tribunal that such penalty appropriately reflects the gravity of the violations, including the harm to the FIFRA regulatory program caused thereby, and will serve as a deterrent to [99¢] and other companies committing similar violations in the future."

According to the EPA, the original violation was discovered during the 2004-2006 time period and the outcome ruled on in 2008. The 99¢ Only Stores appealed the ruling and the final decision was rendered last week.

The agency urges consumers to look at products like disinfectants and other pest killers, and if there is no EPA registration number do not buy it.

The 99¢ Only Stores retail chain is headquartered in the City of Commerce, Calif. and includes 273 stores: 204 in California, 32 in Texas, 25 in Arizona, and 12 in Nevada.