Couple pleads guilty in toxic pet food case


Owners of a Las Vegas company accused of importing tainted pet food ingredients that killed an estimated 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs nationwide pleaded guilty Tuesday under an agreement calling for three years of probation and fines.

Stephen Miller, 56, and Sally Qing Miller, 43, his wife and a Chinese national, each pleaded guilty to one count of selling adulterated food and one count of selling misbranded food, misdemeanor offenses.

The U.S. attorney's office recommended that the Millers be put on probation for three years and pay fines of $5,000 each.

ChemNutra, their import company, would be fined another $25,000 under the plea agreement.

Prosecutors were not required to prove the Millers had criminal intent in importing the poisonous materials, according to defense attorneys.

The government agreed to dismiss 24 other misdemeanor charges and a single felony count for wire fraud conspiracy.

A federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., will sentence them, but the judge is not bound by the plea agreement.

Pet food makers recalled more than 150 brands of dog and cat food in 2007 after hearing reports of cats and dogs suffering kidney failure after eating tainted food.

The Millers imported 800 metric tons of tainted wheat gluten from China, according to their plea agreement. They discovered that the material was contaminated with melamine, a chemical used for plastics, cleaning materials, glues, fertilizers and other industrial purposes. The melamine made the wheat gluten appear to have a higher protein content than was present.

The Food and Drug Administration investigated the tainted pet food material.

"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," said Food and Drugs Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

Defense attorney Robert Becerra said in a statement: "The Millers and ChemNutra look forward to putting both this case and this tragic matter behind them and hope that today's enhanced awareness of food safety issues will prevent this from ever happening again."

Becerra said ChemNutra still exists but no longer is operating. He wouldn't say whether the Millers were continuing their import business through another company.

The Millers have a Web site for a new business called EOSDirect, which said it imports a variety of nutritional and pharmaceutical products from Asia, the Review-Journal has learned.

The Web site said EOSDirect buys only from manufacturers "whom we know, and whom we have visited and reviewed." EOSDirect said it will not buy materials from brokers or trading companies, because it cannot confirm the quality and safety of products from them.

ChemNutra relied on a trading company and broker for the tainted wheat gluten it imported and sold to pet food manufacturers.

The government separately indicted two Chinese residents and two companies with criminal violations stemming from the tainted wheat gluten. Defendant Mao Linzhun admitted to Chinese offcials in April 2007 that his company, Zuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., added melamine to the wheat gluten.

The U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City does not know where Linzhun and Zhen Hao Chen, another Chinese defendant, are or whether the Chinese prosecuted them, said spokesman Don Ledford. China does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

 

Contact reporter John G. Edwards at jedwards@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0420.

 

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