Kan. Pet Food Maker Sues Ingredient Supplier

A pet food manufacturer that recalled 60 million cans of its products last month has sued another company that it says supplied a contaminated ingredient.

Menu Foods Midwest Corp. wants ChemNutra Inc., of Las Vegas, to pay costs associated with the recall of dog and cat food and is seeking damages “substantially in excess of $75,000.”

An attorney for ChemNutra said it is examining whether it has legal claims against Menu Foods. ChemNutra contends Menu Foods waited several weeks to notify it about potential problems.

According to Menu Foods’ lawsuit, wheat gluten that ChemNutra sold to Menu Foods Midwest, an affiliate of Menu Foods Ltd., contained melamine, a chemical found in plastics and pesticides and not approved for use in pet food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“ChemNutra represented itself to Menu Foods and the North American food market as a business that imports high-quality nutritional and pharmaceutical ingredients from China to the United States,” the lawsuit said.

Menu Foods Ltd., based in Streetsville, Ontario, recalled its products after 16 pets, mostly cats, died from eating contaminated food. Other manufacturers also recalled animal food; Menu Foods said it now faces more than 50 lawsuits.

But ChemNutra said a Chinese supplier is responsible for its shipments of contaminated wheat gluten. In a statement on the company’s Web site, Chief Executive Steve Miller said a Chinese company was recommended to ChemNutra by a “reliable source” and provided apparent proof that its wheat gluten was safe.

“We are concerned that we may have been the victim of deliberate and mercenary contamination,” Miller said in the statement.

China’s Foreign Ministry said that it had banned melamine from food products, but it rejected the chemical as the cause of pet deaths in the U.S.

Marc Ullman, the New York attorney for ChemNutra, said the lawsuit doesn’t provide an accurate picture of how events unfolded.

“They didn’t tell us or the public what they knew and when they knew it,” Ullman said. “If Menu Foods had acted as a responsible corporate citizen, Menu Foods could have saved consumers _ and pet owners, specifically _ needless pain and suffering.”

An attorney for Menu Foods in Kansas City, Mo., did not immediately return messages left at his office. A spokesman for ChemNutra said he was reviewing the lawsuit and planned to respond later Thursday.

The lawsuit says most of the wheat gluten from ChemNutra went to a plant in Emporia, about 50 miles south of Topeka, where Menu Foods Midwest is based. Wheat gluten is a vegetable protein, and Menu Foods used it in “cuts and gravy” pet foods.

The lawsuit filed in Lyon County District Court lists Menu Foods Midwest, Menu Foods Ltd., Menu Foods Holdings Inc., also based in Streetsville, and Menu Foods Inc., based in Pennsauken, N.J., as plaintiffs. It accuses ChemNutra of breach of contract and breach of implied warranties about the safety of the wheat gluten and its fitness for use in pet food. It said each shipment of wheat gluten came with a certificate saying it met Menu Foods’ requirements.

“ChemNutra knew that Menu Foods was relying on ChemNutra’s skill and judgment to supply high-quality wheat gluten,” the lawsuit said.

Ullman said Menu Foods told ChemNutra there was a potential problem only eight days before its first recall. ChemNutra has quarantined its wheat gluten and would have done so when it was alerted of a potential problem, he said.

In his statement, Miller said ChemNutra didn’t know melamine was an issue in its wheat gluten until notified by the FDA, two weeks after Menu Foods initiated its first recall.

“In fact, we had never heard of melamine before,” he said. “It’s simply not a chemical on the radar screen for food ingredient suppliers.”