The criminal case against ChemNutra, a company at the center of the 2007 pet food contamination scandal, would end with $35,000 in fines and three years of probation for each of the company’s owners, according to a recommendation by federal prosecutors.
The recommendation is contained in a plea agreement presented in federal court in Kansas City, Mo., this week.
ChemNutra and its owners, Sally Qing Miller, 43, and Stephen S. Miller, 56, a married couple, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count each of distributing adulterated food and selling misbranded food, both Class A misdemeanors.
The defendants originally were indicted on one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, a felony, and 13 counts each of distributing adulterated food and selling misbranded food. In return for the guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed the remaining counts could be dismissed at the time of sentencing, said Don Ledford, spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Attorney Western District of Missouri.
According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Millers each could be sent to prison for up to two years without possibility of parole, fined up to $200,000 and ordered to pay restitution. The company could be fined up to $400,000 and ordered to pay restitution.
However, prosecutors requested that the court levy fines of $25,000 against ChemNutra and $5,000 against each of the Millers, and sentence each owner to three years of probation.
The government also requested that the defendants not be required to pay restitution, noting that ChemNutra is already involved in a class-action suit in which a settlement fund of $24 million was established to compensate eligible pet owners.
“It’s up to the court whether to accept that (sentencing) recommendation,” Ledford added. “Regardless of what the government might agree to, the judge makes the final decision.”
A sentencing hearing has not been scheduled yet.
How much money ChemNutra must contribute to the $24-million pet food settlement fund is unclear. The company’s attorney in the criminal case, Robert Becerra, did not know, and the lawyer representing ChemNutra in the class-action suit did not immediately respond to telephone and e-mail messages.
Defendants in the class-action suit number more than two dozen, most of them companies involved in the manufacturing and selling of pet foods, including Menu Foods, Mars, Del Monte, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, Hill’s, Iams, Walmart, Costco, Target, Petco and Petsmart.
Although the settlement was approved last year, payments to affected pet owners are in limbo pending court action on two separate appeals.
The contamination of more than 150 brands of pet food with melamine killed thousands of dogs and cats and sickened on the order of 30,000 to 50,000 animals, by the estimate of the Veterinary Information Network, which tracked cases and surveyed its members
during the crisis.
Investigators with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Office of Criminal Investigation and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement determined that suppliers in China of wheat gluten, a protein source, added melamine to their product in an attempt to boost its apparent protein content. Melamine is a nitrogen-rich chemical used in the manufacture of plastics, cleaning products, counter tops, glues, inks and fertilizers, among other things. It is not approved for use in food.
More than 800 metric tons of adulterated wheat gluten worth nearly $850,000 was imported by ChemNutra and the Millers into the United States from China in at least 13 shipments between Nov. 6, 2006, and Feb. 21, 2007, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
ChemNutra and the Millers received the tainted product at a port in Kansas City, Mo., then sold and distributed it across the United States to their customers, who in turn, used the ingredient in numerous brands of wet pet food.
The company and its president, Sally Qing Miller, and CEO, Stephen S. Miller, were accused of knowingly and willfully selling adulterated food products — hence the conspiracy charge. But in pleading guilty, the couple did not admit to knowing there was a problem with their product.
ChemNutra lawyer Becerra said the company, though still in existence, is now “dormant.” He described it as a small business based in Las Vegas that, at its peak, had perhaps five employees.
The government’s investigation also resulted in indictments against two Chinese companies and the individuals who headed them. However, federal prosecutors are unable to bring them to court because the United States does not have an extradition treaty with China, Ledford said.
“We’ve not received any communications from China about those (parties),” he said. “There’s not a legal mechanism for us to retrieve defendants from China. Now, if they travel outside of China, they could be prosecuted.”