Four Alleged Smugglers Charged For Importing Banned Catfish Into The United States
(STL.News) Audrey Strauss, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Peter C. Fitzhugh, the Special Agent-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”), Timothy Donovan, Assistant Director of the Northeast Division, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”), Office of Law Enforcement (“OLE”), and Bethanne M. Dinkins, the Special Agent-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the Office of the Inspector General for the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA-OIG”), announced the unsealing today of a Complaint charging MAHMUD CHOWDHURY, a/k/a “Masum Chowdhury,” a/k/a “Uncle Masum,” SHAKIL AHMED, BELAYET HUSSAIN, a/k/a “Belayet Sohel,” and FIROZ AHAMMAD with participating in a conspiracy to smuggle banned catfish into the United States through the Southern District of New York. All four defendants were taken into custody today and will be presented this afternoon before United States Magistrate Judge Katharine H. Parker.
U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said: “As alleged, food safety for U.S. consumers was seriously compromised by these defendants, who disguised their importation and distribution of dangerous fish and fish products. Thankfully, investigators with HSI, NOAA, and USDA-OIG detected something fishy and reeled in the defendants, who now face serious federal charges.”
HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh said: “Something smelled fishy, and this investigation led to this transnational criminal organization as the center of an alleged smuggling operation moving multiple shipments of catfish from prohibited countries into our ports to further a very lucrative scheme. It is a major concern when food entering the U.S. does not meet our strict health and safety guidelines, and HSI New York, working with CBP and our law enforcement partners, will continue to protect the public from potentially contaminated, diseased or adulterated food products and bring to justice those who choose to line their pockets at the expense of our food supply chain.”
NOAA-OLE Northeast Division Assistant Director Timothy Donovan said: “This case demonstrates the importance of our cooperation with U.S. government partners to interdict illegal products before they enter the country. OLE continues to work to protect consumers and fishermen from seafood fraud and the illegal importation of seafood through initiatives like our Seafood Import Monitoring Program.”
USDA-OIG Special Agent-in-Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins said: “Protecting the safety of food is a top priority for USDA-OIG, and we will continue to dedicate investigative resources and work with our law enforcement and prosecutorial partners to protect the integrity of the food supply and bring to justice those who circumvent food safety protocols and put consumers at risk.”
As alleged in the Complaint unsealed today in Manhattan federal court:
Since in or about 2017, the importation into the United States from most countries of fish of the order Siluriformes, which includes multiple species of fish commonly referred to as catfish, has been prohibited by federal law, in order to ensure the safety of food for human consumption in the United States. From at least in or about January 2018 up to and including at least in or about October 2019, notwithstanding this ban, MAHMUD CHOWDHURY, a/k/a “Masum Chowdhury,” a/k/a “Uncle Masum,” SHAKIL AHMED, BELAYET HUSSAIN, a/k/a “Belayet Sohel,” and FIROZ AHAMMAD, the principals of Asia Foods Distributor Inc. (“AFD”), a trading company based in New York City, conspired to smuggle large quantities of prohibited catfish into the United States through the Southern District of New York for distribution to their customers around the United States.
The defendants implemented a scheme through which the banned catfish were listed as other species of fish in the shipping documents of foreign exporters presented at customs, and also in the commercial invoices that they provided to their customers, thereby disguising their importation and distribution. In or about 2019, a customs inspection of a shipping container bound for AFD led to the discovery of the prohibited catfish. Further quantities of illegally imported catfish were also found at AFD’s warehouse and at certain of AFD’s customers’ stores during site inspections. The ensuing investigation of HSI, NOAA, and USDA-OIG led to the seizure of multiple shipping containers bound for AFD, in which banned catfish were identified. Moreover, the execution of a search warrant at AFD’s warehouse resulted in the seizure of evidence documenting AFD’s orders to foreign exporters and communications between the defendants about how to avoid the detection of their scheme and the accompanying risk of potential arrest and imprisonment.