Filing: Couple to plead guilty in tainted pet food case

Wednesday, June 3, 2009 | 9:51 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — A Las Vegas-based company and its owners have agreed to plead guilty in connection with incidents of tainted pet food in 2007 that killed potentially thousands of animals.

In a federal court document filed in Kansas City last week, an attorney for Stephen S. Miller, co-owner of ChemNutra Inc., said his client had reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and would change his not guilty plea at a June 16 court hearing.

The filing said Miller's wife, Sally Miller, and ChemNutra also were asking for a delay to their trial, scheduled to begin Monday.

"Counsel does not believe a new trial date is necessary since the defendants will be entering pleas of guilty before the conclusion of the June 2009 trial docket," attorney Lance Sandage wrote in the filing.

Sandage, as well as attorneys for Sally Miller and ChemNutra, didn't immediately return phone calls for comment Tuesday.

The filing said a plea agreement had been signed and forwarded to prosecutors and the court. But Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office for the Western District of Missouri, said the office couldn't release or discuss any plea agreement until it had been approved by a judge.

The Millers and ChemNutra, along with two Chinese companies, were indicted in February 2008 on charges of bringing wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine into the U.S., which was then sold to pet food makers. Thousands of cats and dogs reportedly were sickened or died after eating the tainted food.

Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. and Suzhou Textiles, Silk, Light Industrial Products Arts and Crafts I/E Co. were indicted on 13 felony counts of introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce and 13 felony counts of introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce.

The indictment also names Mao Linzhun, Xuzhou's owner, and Zhen Hao Chen, Suzhou's president.

ChemNutra and the Millers were charged with 13 misdemeanor counts of introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce, 13 misdemeanor counts of introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce and one felony count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

The indictments alleged that Suzhou Textiles, an export broker, mislabeled 880 short tons, or more than 1.5 million pounds, of tainted wheat gluten manufactured by Xuzhou to avoid inspection in China. Suzhou then did not properly declare the contaminated product it shipped to the U.S. as a material to be used in food, the indictment said.

It also said the shipment was falsely declared to the Chinese government in a way that would avoid a mandatory inspection of the company's plants.

According to the indictment, ChemNutra picked up the melamine-tainted product at a port of entry in Kansas City, then sold it to makers of various brands of pet foods. The indictment alleges that Xuzhou added the melamine to artificially boost the protein content of the gluten to meet the requirements specified in Suzhou's contract with ChemNutra.

Prosecutors said adding the melamine, which would allow it to pass chemical inspections for protein content, was cheaper than actually adding protein to the gluten.

They added at the time that prosecutors weren't alleging that the Millers and ChemNutra knew that the product was toxic, only that they were aware the product had been shipped into the U.S. under false pretenses and failed to notify their customers.

At the time of the indictments, prosecutors acknowledged that they had little ability to prosecute the two Chinese companies. They said Chinese authorities closed Xuzhou shortly after its connection to the melamine scare was discovered.

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