By Lisa Wade McCormick on ConsumerAffairs.com
Nevada couple gets probation and $25,000 fine.
A Rhode Island pet owner whose cats died after eating some of the tainted food said today's sentence was too lenient, and justice was not served. "I feel the sentence is not appropriate, said Carol V. of Rhode Island, whose beloved cats, Smudge and Jessica, died of renal failure. "They (the Millers) did not follow the rules and thousands suffered because of it -- financially and emotionally."
A federal judge today sentenced two Nevada business owners to three years probation for distributing a melamine-tainted ingredient that triggered a massive pet food recall in 2007 and caused the deaths and illnesses of thousands of dog and cats nationwide.
U.S. Magistrate Judge John T. Maughmer also ordered Sally Qing Miller, 43, a Chinese national, and her husband, Stephen S. Miller, 57, to each pay a $5,000 fine. In addition, Whipple ordered the Miller's company, Chemnutra, Inc., to pay a $25,000 fine.
Today's sentencing ends a long legal case that centered on the involvement of the Millers and Chemnutra with importing and distributing the melamine-tainted wheat gluten used in the recalled pet food.
A Rhode Island pet owner whose cats died after eating some of the tainted food said today's sentence was too lenient, and justice was not served.
"I feel the sentence is not appropriate, said Carol V. of Rhode Island, whose beloved cats, Smudge and Jessica, died of renal failure. "They (the Millers) did not follow the rules and thousands suffered because of it -- financially and emotionally."
"There is no justice for Smudge, Jessica, or the others," she added. "This was no elbow knocking over a bad ingredient. Whether or not they knew someone in China adulterated the product does not matter to me. This company did not abide by the laws and rules of importing a food product. Laws and rules exist for a reason. When they are broken, there should be consequences."
But federal officials applaud the judge's sentence and their investigation and prosecution of the case.
"Today's sentence sends a strong message that we will work tirelessly to stop dangerous goods from entering the American marketplace," said John Morton, the Department of Homeland Security's assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "ICE will continue to aggressively pursue individuals and organizations involved with illegally importing tainted or substandard goods that may jeopardize the safety of our families, communities and pets."
"We commend the action of the U.S. Attorney's Office against those companies and individuals responsible for many animal injuries and deaths from melamine contamination of pet food. The FDA will support strong enforcement of the law to protect the health and safety of our pets," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Chemnutra is a Nevada-based company that buys food products in China and imports them into the United States. The company then sells those products to pet food makers and other manufacturers in the food industry. Sally Miller is Chemnutra's controlling owner and president, while Stephen Miller is an owner and the company's chief executive officer.
From November of 2006 through February 2007, Chemnutra and Millers imported more than 800 metric tons of melamine-tainted wheat gluten from China in at least 13 separate shipments, according to a federal indictment. Melamine is a chemical used to make plastic and fertilizers and is not allowed in human or pet food.
Chemnutra and the Millers received the melamine-tainted wheat gluten at a port of entry in Kansas City, Missouri, the indictment said. The company then sold and shipped the tainted wheat gluten to customers across the United States, who used the tainted product to make various brands of pet food.
A federal grand jury in 2008 indicted the Millers and Chemnutra for their roles in importing the tainted wheat gluten.
The Millers and their company later pleaded guilty to one count of selling adulterated food and one count of selling misbranded 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," Beth Phillips, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, said in a statement released today. "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."
During today's federal court hearing, Judge Maughmer decided not to impose further restitution because of the $24 million settlement reached in a civil suit filed in the wake of the pet food recall.
The melamine-tainted wheat gluten forced pet food makers to recall more than 150 brands of dog and cat food during 2007. It was the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.
Dogs and cats across the country suffered kidney failure after eating the contaminated food. While there is no coordinated national tracking system to monitor the number of pet deaths, the FDA said approximately 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs died after eating pet food made with tainted wheat gluten imported from China.
Wheat gluten is a natural protein used as binding agent in pet food to thicken the gravy. Adding melamine to the wheat gluten made the product appear to have a higher protein level than it did, FDA officials said.
Back in Kansas City, Phillips said her office will continue to aggressively prosecute companies and individuals who put consumers at risk.
"We are committed to protecting the health and safety of the public," she said. "We will vigorously prosecute those who violate the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and other federal statutes designed to protect the public from this kind of criminal conduct."
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Gene Porter and Joseph Marquez prosecuted the Chemnutra case. It was investigated by the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigation and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.