Recall Resolution? Pet Food Company Pleads Guilty, But Penalties Are Minimal

By Sally E. Bahner

In a recent court decision that has received little media attention, the final chapter was written in the pet food recall of spring 2007.

Las Vegas-based ChemNutra, its owners, Stephen and Sally Miller, and two Chinese companies, reached a plea agreement in which they pleaded guilty to selling contaminated ingredients to pet food manufacturers after receiving 13 shipments of wheat gluten from China between November 2006 and February 2007.

They had been indicted in February 2008 on 13 counts of introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce, 13 counts of introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce and one felony count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Menu Foods was one of the manufacturers that had a long list of contaminated pet foods.  Foods from all of the well-known brands were added day by day during spring 2007.

The pet food recall was a wake-up call to pet owners concerning the foods being marketed to them. A deadly combination of melamine and cyanuric acid found in shipments of wheat gluten, a common ingredient in many brands of pet food, caused symptoms of kidney failure in cats and dogs. The melamine was added to boost the protein content of the wheat gluten. 

According to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), cats were more likely than dogs to be affected because of their small size. JAVMA cited a survey by the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians of 235 cases of kidney failure caused by pet food poisoning between April and June 2007: 143 cats died and 92 survived; 83 dogs died and 29 survived. Approximately 8,000 complaints were reported to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Banfield, the Pet Hospital, reported a 30 percent increase in cats being treated for kidney failure during the timeframe of the recall among its more than 615 clinics.

To address the expenses and concerns of pet owners affected by the recall, a Pet Food Products Liability Settlement ( created a $24 million cash settlement from which eligible consumers and/or pet owners may receive a cash payment for up to 100 percent of all documented damages related to consumption of the recalled pet foods. However, as of May 28, 2009, payments cannot be made on eligible claims until all appeals are resolved. A decision is pending from an Appellate Court.

In the end, ChemNutra got off with a slap on the wrist.

Despite facing a total of 27 charges, on June 16 the Millers and ChemNutra pleaded guilty to just one count of selling adulterated food and one count of selling misbranded food, both misdemeanors. They were not sentenced, but could face up to two years in federal prison without parole, a $200,000 fine, plus restitution; their company could be fined $400,000 and pay restitution. But an agreement is pending in which the sentence could be probation and a fine.

Cats and dogs that survived the melamine poisoning face shortened lives due to CRF. Their treatment includes special diets, subcutaneous fluids and supplements, along with a heightened awareness on the part of their owners about what goes into their pet’s food.

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