ST. LOUIS • On March 21, 2014, a 50,000 pound shipment of turkey ingredients bound for an Indiana pet food company was shipped from Texas, with the help of a Ballwin company and its co-owner.
The shipment was supposed to contain only turkey meal, not poultry feathers, heads, bones, feet or entrails.
But a California-based feed company and a Ballwin commodities broker had been mislabeling pet food ingredients for years, substituting lower cost poultry feathers, ground into feather meal, and byproducts for premium ingredients, according to two guilty pleas entered in federal court in the last month.
The California company, Wilbur-Ellis Feed LLC, is likely to be placed on probation for three years later this year and pay out nearly $5.5 million, according to the company’s guilty plea.
The broker, Collin McAtee, who also co-owned a Ballwin company, could face up to a year in prison, but his lawyer, John Rogers, said Tuesday that he would ask for probation.
Rogers said McAtee had “accepted responsibility for his actions.”
“He is a remarkable individual with no prior criminal history and we look forward to being able to talk about him favorably at sentencing,” Rogers said.
The criminal case sprang from discoveries made during a lawsuit by St. Louis-based Nestlé Purina PetCare against Blue Buffalo in 2014. The suit, and a later class-action lawsuit filed by consumers, alleged Blue Buffalo lied to customers about its use of natural ingredients.
Blue Buffalo said it was defrauded by suppliers and settled both suits.
McAtee, a co-owner of Diversified Ingredients Inc. of Ballwin, pleaded guilty May 17 to two counts of the same offense.
Wilbur-Ellis Feed LLC, a California company, pleaded guilty to one count of adulteration or misbranding of food April 25.
As part of the plea, Wilbur-Ellis Feed admitted substituting lower cost ingredients for premium, more expensive chicken and turkey meal in shipments from a plant in Rosser, Texas, to pet food manufacturers between June 2013 and May 2014. On one or more occasions, the plea says, that lower cost product was hydrolyzed poultry feathers or hydrolyzed feather meal, which consists of ground-up feathers.
The plea specifically references a 50,840-pound shipment that was a blend of chicken byproducts and hydrolyzed poultry feathers that was sent from the Wilbur-Ellis facility in Rosser. The shipment was labeled chicken meal, which is not supposed to contain chicken feathers, heads, feet and entrails.
Both prosecutors and the company’s lawyers agreed to recommend three years of probation, restitution of $4.5 million, the forfeiture of nearly $1 million and a $1,000 fine.
McAtee, a trader, broker and co-owner of Diversified Ingredients Inc. of Ballwin, admitted in his plea that the pet food companies that were his company’s clients received adulterated and misbranded pet food ingredients from the Rosser facility between 2012 and May 2014.
One client received the ingredients between 2012 and May 2014, his plea says. Other companies, which were not identified in the plea but which made and packed food for Blue Buffalo, received multiple adulterated shipments from 2012 to May 2014.
McAtee removed the word “blend” from some documents and forged signatures of a Wilbur-Ellis employee on forms to conceal the source or contents of shipments, his plea says.
McAtee’s recommended sentencing guidelines call for three or more years in prison, but the crime is a misdemeanor, meaning he will face no more than one year.
Diversified Ingredients and Henry R. Rychlik, a Wilbur-Ellis employee who was responsible for the animal protein products at Rosser were also charged in the case. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Lawyers for the other defendants did not return messages seeking comment or declined to comment.