Millions of pets each year get sick from food poisoning and most of those illnesses go unreported and the ones that are, seldom have a satisfactory outcome. There are laws that are in place to protect consumers and by extension your pet, from foodborne illness.
But, as many pet parents know, corporations violate those laws and produce unsafe pet food every year. Right now, more and more pet parents are at the mercy of unscrupulous and careless pet food manufacturers and most are looking for answers. This guide will help you understand what steps you can take if you think your pet has been a victim of a foodborne illness.
How common are cases of foodborne illnesses in pets? No one knows. The best we can do is estimate using human statistics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a government agency that monitors outbreaks of food poisoning in humans, estimates that there are 76 million cases of food poisoning in the United States each year, most of which go unreported.
In addition, of that number, approximately 1.4 million people in the U.S. will get sick from Salmonella this year alone. According to the CDC, there are between 400 and 500 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness in humans each year. An outbreak refers to any situation where many people (or pets) are made sick by a particular batch of contaminated food.
Your dog or cat is ill and you and your vet suspect the reason may be due to a foodborne illness (food poisoning); complicating matters is that your pet may face lingering health problems that continue indefinitely or even for a lifetime. Or worse, your pet has already died of what you believed was food poisoning and all you were left with were suspicions and sorrow.
Before a pet food can be blamed, some basic steps must be taken in order to discover if food poisoning is the cause of your pet’s illness. This is critical in determining whether or not your pet was made ill by a pet food before you file a claim with the pet food manufacturer.
The proof is in the pudding & the poop
- The proof is in the poop Your veterinarian should make a definitive diagnosis of food poisoning by culturing a fecal or blood sample, assuming it is a pathogen. If the vet suspects some other food related illness he should order tests appropriate for the clinical presentation. If for some reason, your vet is having difficulty in making a diagnosis the vet should consider consulting with a veterinary university, such as Cornell University in such cases. Cornell has a consult program to help veterinarians and has one of the finest toxicology labs in the country.
- Eureka! When the bacteria from a stool culture matches the bacteria taken from the food or food facility, veterinarians and officials have medical, biological, epidemiological, and legal proof that particular food caused the illness.
- The FDA should test the food Following that, your vet may wish to have the food itself tested, although that is unlikely, nor would it be considered necessary at this point. The usual course of events is that when a positive diagnosis is made, the vet reports the adverse event to the FDA, assuming of course that a pet product or pet food-related illness is suspected. At that point, the FDA will decide whether it is appropriate to test a sample of the food.
- The vet has the food tested If the product has not been recalled, your veterinarian might want to have the food tested (assuming the FDA has not already done so). Your vet may wish to consider Michigan State University as a good choice for laboratory testing and analysis, the cost of which is quite reasonable depending on the number and type of tests ordered.
At this point, if your pet became ill because of a pet food and both you and your vet reported the problem to the FDA and your State’s Consumer Complaint Coordinator, you probably want the pet food company to pay for your vet bills; in which case you need to file a claim with the pet food manufacturer. However, before you do, it helps to understand the basics of product liability.
Defective pet food
The government has established laws not only for the safety of the food we eat, the water we drink, but the food we feed our pets as well. Simply put – it is illegal to sell contaminated food. Period. Full Stop.
Food poisoning lawsuits generally fall under the category of defective product liability claims, the idea being that you have been sold a defective product (food) that injured (poisoned) your pet. If bad food caused an outbreak, the pet food manufacturer’s liability will be clear. The courts tend to accept the fact that if a food poisons someone or their pet, it is evidence of negligence.
The most common legal theories in these cases include:
- Strict product liability Most states have adopted strict product liability laws, which relieve you of any burden of having to show that the manufacturer or supplier of a contaminated food product was not sufficiently careful in making or distributing that product (a big advantage to you). You just have to show that the food product your pet ate was contaminated and that the contamination was the cause of your pet’s illness.
- Negligence In addition to a claim based on strict product liability, or in cases or states in which strict liability is not an available legal basis for your claim, you may be able to argue that the defendants in your case acted negligently in manufacturing or supplying the contaminated food product that made your pet sick. In order to prove negligence, you must show that the defendants were not reasonably careful (called “failing to exercise reasonable care”) in making or distributing the contaminated food product that made your pet sick.
- Breach of warranties Most states impose certain minimum standards on products (known as “implied warranties”), and the contamination of the food product involved in your case may constitute a violation (or “breach,” in legalese) of those implied warranties. In addition, the contamination may also constitute a violation of any express guarantees supplied by the food processor (such as a “healthy and wholesome” label on a package).
Sick as a dog
Proving your claim is often the greatest challenge in food poisoning cases. You will have to show two things in order to make your claim: the food your pet ate was contaminated and the contamination made your pet sick.
- The food your pet ate was contaminated You will have to pinpoint the particular food product that made your pet sick. Proving a link between the food your pet ate and contamination is easiest in cases where a government health agency steps in and traces an outbreak of food poisoning to a particular source (which in the case of a recalled pet food, you are in luck). Scientific testing to determine the particular type of disease-causing microbes that were present in the contaminated food can be critically important because it can provide solid evidence linking the contaminated product with your pets illness.
- The contamination made your pet sick You may also need to prove that your pet’s illness was caused by the contaminated food. The best way to do this is to have a stool sample scientifically tested for food poisoning. If you can show that, your pet’s stool sample contained the same disease-causing microbes that were found in the contaminated food source, you would greatly strengthen your claim.
Get all your ducks in a row
You should also collect the following documents and evidence to support your claim or in the event that your pet should ever become ill because of a pet food in the future.
- The pet food bag Many pet owners threw away the original bag that the recalled pet food came in. However, a few owners kept their bags. If this is the case, keep the bag, even if the recalled pet food is returned to the store for an exchange or refund.
- The store receipt If the receipt for the purchase of the recalled pet food has not been thrown away, file it away. For pet owners who no longer have their receipt, contact the store where the food was purchased. Membership-only stores like Costco or BJ’s keep records of what each customer purchases. Target and a few other large retailers keep receipt information on-file for anyone who makes a purchase using a credit card. Contact the store where the food was purchased and find out how to obtain a record of your purchase of the recalled pet food. Pet owners who purchased tainted pet food with a credit card can also contact the credit card company for information on the purchase.
- The vet bill Obtain an itemized bill from the veterinary clinic where the cat or dog was treated.
- A letter from the veterinarian Dog and cat owners must obtain a letter from their veterinarian, confirming that the pet was treated for a foodborne illness and that the recalled pet food was the suspected source of the food poisoning.
- A copy of lab tests In confirmed cases of the contaminant,lab tests will have been performed on a fecal sample from the sick cat or dog. Obtain a copy of these lab results from the veterinarian’s office.
It takes only a few cells of Salmonella to make someone sick, in some cases fatally ill. Salmonella can contaminate food, water, a counter-top, the floor, a hand, a hand towel, pet food, anything.
Companies that process food and pet food know that Salmonella contamination can occur and know how to prevent it. When contaminated food or pet food makes a consumer sick, the law says that the processor of that product is liable (legally responsible) for all of the harm caused by the contaminated product. This is important because the law does act as a deterrent to bad behavior, at least most of the time.
When companies behave badly
Then there are companies like Diamond, who allowed so many safety violations that they had to have known that their product would become contaminated. When there is this kind of bad behavior, it is particularly important for the people with pets sickened by the contaminated product to know they can sue the company. Companies that get away with bad behavior continue to behave badly, and other companies may follow the lead.
Whenever a company releases a product that is defectively designed or made, product liability lawsuits are possible. In the case of tainted food, the result is no different. Therefore, Diamond Pet Foods could be in a lot trouble — especially because a Salmonella infection can lead to serious illness and sometimes painful lifelong health conditions.
The risk in the pet product business, which historically has been a low-liability business, is rising. The human outbreak of Salmonella Infantis traced back to Diamond Pet Foods for example, which led to a lawsuit filed on behalf of an eight-week-old infant should be a sobering wake-up call. As the liability for injuries to people continues to rise, the historical legal structure that considers pets and animals as personal property is being challenged in state after state, with plaintiffs seeking huge damages for the injury or death of a beloved family pet.
If all else fails, take them to court
Despite all the information you are now empowered with, do not be surprised if the pet food company denies your claim. In such an event, you may wish to consider legal action. It can be as simple as filing the action in Small Claims court, where you do not need a lawyer, and the basic costs are minimum (all filing fees and paralegal or attorney’s fees, can also be recovered), providing the amount sought does not exceed $5,000.00 (in California at least). To sue for more than $5000.00, the lawsuit has to be filed with the Municipal Courts; and above $25,000.00, in the Superior Courts.
Whatever you decide, you now know what options you have and how to use them. That alone, can mean the difference between feeling powerless, and knowing, that as a consumer, you have the strength of law on you and your pet’s side.