A U.S. company, ChemNutra Inc., and two Chinese businesses were charged by a federal grand jury in connection with the import of tainted pet food ingredients that may have killed thousands of cats and dogs last year.
Top executives from the companies were also indicted. The U.S. accused them of importing 800 metric tons of wheat gluten poisoned with melamine, an unsafe food additive. The shipments were mislabeled to avoid inspection in China, prosecutors said.
"In today's global economy, crimes that occur halfway around the world can seriously impact our lives,'' U.S. Attorney John Wood of Kansas City, Missouri, said today in a statement. "Millions of pet owners remember the anxiety of last year's pet food recall.''
Last March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was alerted to the deaths of 14 cats and dogs that appeared to suffer from kidney failure after eating. Ultimately, manufacturers recalled more than 150 brands of dog and cat food. The pet deaths contributed to U.S. consumers' fears about the safety of Chinese- made products during a year in which toys and toothpaste made in that country also were recalled.
Consumer reports received by the FDA suggested that about 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs died after eating contaminated pet food, the Justice Department said.
Wheat gluten is a natural protein derived from wheat and is used as a binding agent in some types of pet food. The government said that mixing melamine with wheat gluten made it appear to have a higher protein level.
Melamine has commercial uses, including in fertilizers, plastics, cleaning products, glues and inks, and it isn't approved for use as food for humans or animals in the U.S., prosecutors said.
Las Vegas-based ChemNutra and its owners, Sally Miller and Stephen Miller, were charged with 26 misdemeanor counts alleging they delivered adulterated food and introduced it into interstate commerce. The executives and the company were also charged with one felony count of participating in a wire-fraud conspiracy to defraud companies that purchased the contaminated gluten.
ChemNutra, in a statement, said the company and the Millers "deny in the strongest of terms the allegations by the Department of Justice and look forward to the opportunity to prove their innocence at trial.''
Neither of the Millers "had any intent to defraud or any knowledge of wrongdoing,'' the statement added.
In a separate indictment, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. and Suzhou Textiles, Silk, Light Industrial Products, Arts and Crafts I/E Co. were charged with 26 felony counts. Mao Linzhun and Zhen Hao Chen, executives with the companies, also face 26 felony charges.
The companies and owners were charged in Kansas City because the products were shipped to the port in that city, according to the Justice Department.