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Intellectual Property Rights

Nevada business owners plead guilty to distributing tainted ingredient used in pet food

Thousands of pets suffered illness, death throughout the United States

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A Nevada business and its two owners pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to 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 United States in 2007. The guilty pleas resulted from an investigation conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Sally Qing Miller, 43, a Chinese national, and her husband, Stephen S. Miller, 56, both of Las Vegas, along with their company, ChemNutra Inc., pleaded guilty June 16 to some of the charges contained in a Feb. 6, 2008, federal indictment. In addition, they agreed that the conduct charged against them in the remaining counts could be considered by the court as relevant conduct and used against them at the time of sentencing.

"Millions of pet owners were impacted by the pet food recall in 2007," said Matt J. Whitworth, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. "The conduct of these defendants in violating federal health and safety standards caused the deaths and illness of thousands of family pets, as well as anxiety among dog and cat owners across the country, and economic harm to many pet food manufacturers."

"The FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations acted aggressively in 2007 to investigate ChemNutra," said Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs. "Today's announcement reflects our continued commitment to investigate and prosecute companies and individuals that violate the law and endanger the public's health through illegal 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 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 United States 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.

Under federal statutes, the Millers are each subject to a sentence of up to two years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $200,000 and an order of restitution. ChemNutra is subject to a fine up to $400,000 and an order of restitution. Sentencing hearings will be scheduled after the U.S. Probation Office completes its presentence investigations.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Gene Porter and Joseph Marquez, Western District of Missouri, are prosecuting this case.