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Intellectual Property Rights
02/05/2010

Business owners sentenced for distributing tainted pet food ingredient

Follows $24 million settlement related to illness and deaths of thousands of pets

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A Nevada business and its two owners were sentenced in federal court Friday for distributing a tainted ingredient used to make pet food, which resulted in a nationwide recall of pet food after thousands of pets died across the U.S. in 2007. The sentence resulted from an investigation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Sally Qing Miller, 43, a Chinese national, and her husband, Stephen S. Miller, 57, both of Las Vegas, Nev., were sentenced Feb. 5 in the Western District of Missouri to three years of probation. The court also ordered their company, ChemNutra Inc., to pay a $25,000 fine. Sally Miller and Stephen Miller were each ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.

The court ruled that no further restitution would be imposed in light of a $24 million settlement in the related civil suit reached in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

"ICE will continue to aggressively pursue individuals and organizations involved with illegally importing tainted or substandard goods that may jeopardize the safety of our families, communities and pets," said John Morton, Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for ICE. "Today's sentence sends a strong message that we will work tirelessly to stop dangerous goods from entering the American marketplace."

"We commend the action of the U.S. Attorney's Office against those companies and individuals responsible for many animal injuries and deaths from melamine contamination of pet food," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the FDA. "The FDA will support strong enforcement of the law to protect the health and safety of our pets."

"We are committed to protecting the health and safety of the public," said Beth Phillips, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. "We will vigorously prosecute those who violate the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and other federal statutes designed to protect the public from this kind of criminal conduct."

ChemNutra is a company that imports food and food components from China into the U.S. and sells them to companies in the food industry. Sally Miller is the controlling owner and president of ChemNutra; Stephen Miller is an owner and chief executive officer of ChemNutra. Each of the three co-defendants pleaded guilty in June to one count of selling adulterated food and one count of selling misbranded food.

More than 800 metric tons of tainted wheat gluten was imported by ChemNutra and the Millers into the U.S. from China in at least 13 separate shipments between November 2006 and February 2007, with invoices totaling nearly $850,000. Those shipments were tainted with melamine, an unsafe food additive. ChemNutra and the Millers received the melamine-tainted product at a port of entry in Kansas City, Mo., and then sold and shipped the product to customers across the U.S. for use in manufacturing various brands of pet food.

By pleading guilty, ChemNutra and the Millers admitted that melamine was substituted, wholly or in part, for the protein requirement of the wheat gluten so as to make it appear the wheat gluten was better or of greater value than it was. They also admitted that the labeling of the wheat gluten was false and misleading because the wheat gluten was represented to have a minimum protein level of 75 percent, when in fact it did not. The labeling was also false and misleading because melamine was not listed on the label as an ingredient.

Pet Food Recall

Pet food manufacturers recalled more than 150 brands of dog and cat food across the nation in 2007, following reports of pets suffering kidney failure after eating the affected products. There is no coordinated national tracking system to monitor the number of pet deaths. However, consumer reports received by the FDA suggest that about 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs died after eating pet food contaminated with melamine.

Melamine Contamination

Wheat gluten is the natural protein derived from wheat or wheat flour, which is extracted and dried to yield a powder of high protein content. Pet food manufacturers use wheat gluten as a binding agent in manufacturing certain types of pet food to thicken pet food "gravy."

Melamine has a number of commercial and industrial uses, but it has no approved use as an ingredient in human or animal food in the United States. Melamine can be used to create products such as plastics, cleaning products, counter tops, glues, inks and fertilizers. Mixing melamine with wheat gluten made the wheat gluten appear to have a higher protein level than was actually present.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Gene Porter and Joseph Marquez, Western District of Missouri, successfully prosecuted the case.