ST. LOUIS — The former co-owner of a Texas company that supplied ingredients to pet food companies pleaded guilty in federal court here Thursday to felony charges and admitted involvement in a conspiracy to pass off lower-grade pet food ingredients like ground-up feathers as higher-quality, more expensive poultry meal.
As part of the plea agreement of William Douglas Haning, 47, prosecutors and Haning’s lawyers agreed that a sentence of five years of probation was appropriate. Haning has also agreed to forfeit more than $930,000 in proceeds from the sale of a 2,700-acre exotic animal hunting ranch that he co-owned, according to court documents and testimony.
Defense lawyer Justin Gelfand, in a text message, wrote, “We are pleased the Government agreed that a sentence of probation is a fair resolution to this case.”
Alicia Corder, acting head of the FBI’s St. Louis office, likened the conspiracy to “charging filet mignon prices for ground beef” in a statement, adding that Haning “unjustly lined his own pockets at the expense of unsuspecting consumers.”
Charles L. Grinstead, head of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations in Kansas City, said “When criminals introduce adulterated and falsely labelled pet food into the U.S. marketplace, they put the health of companion animals at risk.”
Haning admitted that from 2008-2014 he was involved in a conspiracy to sell chicken and poultry meal to pet food companies that was misbranded or adulterated with lower-quality ingredients. Haning was co-owner of American By-Products of Rosser, Texas. American By-Products was sold to Wilbur-Ellis, a California company, in 2011.
Haning’s plea came near the end of a yearslong fight over the ingredients in high-end pet foods. That fight originated in a federal lawsuit filed by St. Louis-based Nestlé Purina PetCare against Blue Buffalo in 2014. The suit, and a later consumer class-action lawsuit, claimed that Blue Buffalo lied by stating it used natural ingredients. Blue Buffalo said it was defrauded by suppliers and settled both suits.
Since that time, Haning and other individuals and companies have pleaded guilty to criminal charges linked to the substitution of poultry feathers, heads, bones, feet or entrails for more expensive, higher quality ingredients in pet food blends that are sold to small and medium-size companies unable to afford their own manufacturing plants.
American supplied Diversified Ingredients, of Ballwin, through an intermediary, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen D. Mahoney said in court. Diversified Ingredients pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of adulteration or misbranding of food and agreed to pay $1.5 million in restitution to Blue Buffalo, a $75,000 forfeiture judgment and a $2,000 fine.
The company’s lawyer, Gordon Ankney, said at the time that the plea did not indicate that the company “had actual knowledge that Wilbur-Ellis adulterated or misbranded the product.”
Diversified Ingredients co-owner Collin McAtee pleaded guilty to the same charges, but those charges were dismissed in May when he died.
A former Texas food inspector, Gregory S. McKinney, 50, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of adulteration or misbranding of food and admitted running a company that supplied falsely labeled ingredients for pet food products and is scheduled to be sentenced in January.
Wilbur-Ellis Feed LLC, a California company, pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge and was sentenced last October to three years of probation and fined $1,000. The company also agreed to pay $4.5 million in restitution to Blue Buffalo.
Former Wilbur-Ellis and American By-Products employee Henry R. Rychlik pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.