LV importer 'totally stunned' by tainted pet food ingredient

The encounter was unusual even for a businessman accustomed to doing business in China.

But Steve Miller, 54, a Las Vegas-based importer, and a trading company official were still surprised after their flight from Shanghai to meet with the manufacturer of tainted wheat gluten that Miller had imported.

Lejun Mao, general manager of XuZhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd., met them at the airport during the late March trip, but there was no place to sit.

"He put out newspapers on a parking lot. We just sat down on the newspapers to talk," Miller said.

Miller spoke to Mao with the help of two translators while his wife, Sally, a native speaker of Chinese, participated by cell phone.

Miller told Mao that the chemical melamine had been detected in wheat gluten that his company, ChemNutra, had purchased from XuZhou.

"He said he didn't understand how that had happened, and he said he would look into it and get back to us," Miller recalled.

The Chinese businessman seemed sorry about the problem, Miller said; in fact, Mao insisted on carrying Miller's luggage and backpack to the boarding agent after the meeting.

However, Miller said, the manufacturer admitted no responsibility for the tainted wheat gluten.

Miller has not been able to contact Mao since that meeting. Before Chinese officials could investigate the wheat gluten plant, bulldozers razed the structure.

It was as if Miller -- the chief executive officer for ChemNutra, a three-person import firm -- had been a victim of the Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times."

Miller told the inside story of the tainted Chinese wheat gluten for the first time Friday in a restaurant in northwest Las Vegas.

The importer earned a combination degree in law and a master's of business administration from Columbia University, and he worked as an investment banker before becoming an entrepreneur.

He started an Internet company called Net Exchange in New York that provided a Web-based e-mail archive and database system for companies, but the company imploded and he lost all of his investment money after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000.

Miller started ChemNutra in Pasadena, Calif., three years ago and moved to Las Vegas 18 months ago. He rents space in five warehouses around the country and provides a variety of pet food ingredients to manufacturers and pet food ingredient distributors.

Miller, who discussed details about the story during an interview with the Review-Journal, said he first learned of the melamine problem while attending a trade show in Shanghai on March 29.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration contacted him at the trade show and told him that melamine was detected in wheat gluten he had imported from XuZhou, he said.

"I was just totally stunned," Miller said. "It was out of left field. No one had ever heard of melamine," a chemical used in plastics and as a fire retardant.

"I didn't even know what it was," he said.

Like other pet food ingredient importers, Miller said he relied on the supplier to obtain a certificate of analysis from the manufacturer to ensure that the products were pure.

Menu Foods, one of the pet food makers that ChemNutra supplied, learned on Feb. 20 that its pet food was contaminated, according to testimony in a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Menu Foods told ChemNutra on March 6 to stop all shipments of wheat gluten, apparently because of a change in specifications, according to ChemNutra.

ChemNutra issued a product recall on March 16 and spoke to an Associated Press reporter about the recall. It was the last interview Miller gave before Friday.

Hours after the product recall, ChemNutra issued its first news release ever, advising the public about the tainted pet food.

Television news crews from four stations swarmed outside the nondescript office building used by ChemNutra. A television station helicopter buzzed the area for an aerial view.

When Miller's secretary went out to speak to the reporters, he and his wife "were able to sneak out, and they didn't see us leave even though there is only one door."

Television crews still were staking out the office and shining a light on the dark building when Miller drove by at 11 p.m.

Industry executives were surprised two weeks later to see Miller at the Pet Food Forum, a conference that brings 700 attendees to Chicago.

"We had been a victim of fraud in this situation," Miller said. "I wanted to say: I'm still here. I'm still in business."

But Miller's involvement in the pet food scare continued to grow.

When he returned to his Las Vegas office from an errand on April 27, he found a vehicle parked in his office parking space.

The people in the car promised to move.

Miller did not know it, but he had just met FDA investigators waiting for a sealed search warrant to serve on ChemNutra's offices.

"We had always given the FDA anything they asked for," he said.

The FDA investigators wore badges and guns on their hips, but they were friendly, Miller said. "They were very jovial and pleasant people," he said.

The FDA also served a search warrant on Menu Food's plant in Emporia, Kan., the same day.

Miller said he believes he could be charged with a misdemeanor for importing tainted food, even though he had no knowledge that the wheat gluten was bad.

The businessman believes the U.S. government will pursue more serious charges against others domestically.

"I don't want to go into details, and I don't want to say who" may be charged with a crime, Miller said.

Mao and another Chinese manufacturer of wheat gluten already are in jail, and Miller thinks they face long prison terms.

"For China, this has embarrassed them so badly" that the government will want to punish wrongdoers, he said.

ChemNutra is organizing the Pet Food Industry Safety Summit in Las Vegas on July 14 so that industry leaders can discuss ways to prevent problems like the tainted wheat gluten.

Miller predicts the incident will spur the pet food import industry to start testing ingredients routinely.

"We will definitely change our procedures to make sure nothing like this ever happens again," he said.

He is also confident that ChemNutra will survive. Menu Foods is the only customer ChemNutra has lost, leaving 17 others.

Miller believes ChemNutra has sufficient insurance to pay for any judgments stemming from lawsuits filed by pet owners and others.

The FDA has said 16 cats and one dog were confirmed to have died after eating tainted pet food.