How Not to Get Shafted by a Pet Food Company

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.

Outbreak!

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.

 

Suspicious minds

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.

Bad bugs

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.

Risky business

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.

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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and advisor to AAFCO. Help support her work by making a donation today.

Comments (29) Write a comment

  1. Thank you so much for this information. I’ve been feeding my dog’s Taste of the Wild dog food for about ten years now, and never had an issue. This past Wednesday, I purchased a new bag. My husband dumped the food in the dog food bin, and threw away the bag. I fed our Greyhound the new food that night, and the next morning she refused to eat, and started vomiting and having diarrhea. After that, I fed her boiled chicken and rice to settle her stomach. In the meantime, the garbage service carted off the garbage along with the empty dog food bag. I didn’t think to much of Sophia’s symptoms at the time, and thought it would pass, but it didn’t. It never occurred to me that the dog food had anything to do with it, until I started backtracking in my brain the chain of events. By Saturday, she’d stopped vomiting but still had diarrhea, so I took her to the vet. I was unable to bring in much of a stool sample, just a small patch of diarrhea laden grass. The stool sample was tested, but came back normal. However, my vet concurred that more than likely the dog food was to blame. I don’t have the original bag, so have no lot number etc. I have contacted Taste of the Wild, and am getting ready to contact the retailer. I still have the receipt, and a copy of the vet report. I also contacted the FDA.

    I don’t know what good any of this will do me, but I was astounded when I started researching Taste of the Wild and realized they are a subsidiary of Diamond. When I read all the consumer horror stories about Diamond, I was surprised that my dogs never got sick before this. Then I remembered that my Bichon Poo had a similar episode as Sophie last September. The vet told me it was colitis brought on by stress. After a few more of the same episodes, I switched her diet to a low fat limited ingredient by another company. Now this has me wondering if the Bichon had been affected as well, as she has had no more incidents since the food change.

    I’d like to get the food tested, but don’t want to spend an arm and a leg. Even if I do get the food tested, I don’t have a lot number. I thought about going to the retailer and a taking a photo off a similar bag. This is all so frustrating, but at least Sophie is feeling better. I feel like screaming from the roof tops for people to avoid Diamond and Taste of the Wild.

    Reply

  2. I have questions. My mom lost two of her dogs in the last 24 hours. She’s pretty sure her new bottle of Cety’l M is contaminated and poisoned her dogs. Her third dog ate a portion of food with the supplement in it that one of the others refused and was sick that whole day. Aspirin calmed the dog’s racing heart and she seems ok now. My mom lives out in the middle of nowhere, the nearest vet is 2 hours away. She buried the dogs together this morning. She did contact the Cetyl M manufacturer and they’ve asked her to send the rest of the bottle back for testing. She will, but she’s also retained a few tablets for possible independent testing. What are her options? I know she won’t go out and dig up the dogs so she can drive for 2 hours to get them autopsied.

    Reply

    • How awful! I suggest calling the FDA ASAP and getting in touch with the State dept of agriculture in her state STAT. All the information on how to do this are in these articles:http://www.poisonedpets.com/essentials/. It is possible that the FDA and/or the state will want to test them as well. Hopefully she saved enough for independent testing as well. I always recommend the University of Michigan. Do you have the name of the product, the lot numbers and exp date? I can publicize it on FB as a caution. Is it possible the dogs got into moldy trash or some other toxin in the environment? Always something to consider…Keep me posted!

      Reply

  3. Pingback: Diamond Pet Foods Hit with Class Action Suit over Salmonella Outbreak « Poisoned Pets

  4. I was particularly interested in the part where one could “prove” that the food and/or what it contained was what had killed the dog – – – years and years ago – I lost several performance dogs (including an inutero litter) to an incident where arsenic and orthophosphate in massive quantities (tested by independent chemical analysts) were impregnated in the food pellets. The judge said that I had proven that the food was poisoned, and I had proven that the dogs were dead, but I had not proven that it was the poison that killed them. Thank you.

    Reply

    • I’m not a lawyer, but in my estimation the judge’s ruling was incorrect. A good lawyer would have appealed such a decision.

      The “proof” is that the product is contaminated and that a veterinary report and lab results support that.

      Reply

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  6. Very good information – thank you. I carried food samples after a recall seven years ago to my state’s agricultural lab, who tested it free of charge. It was contaminated, so I had laboratory tests run on my dogs at the vet. I kept everything, and it was a good thing, as a class action lawsuit resulted and I had to have all of my papers, receipts, and lot numbers cut from bags. I was able to recover the money spent at the vet in the class action since I had kept the appropriate paperwork.

    Reply

    • Thanks. Is there anything you think I missed or that people should know about the process of being involved in a class-action. I assume you are referring to the Menu foods lawsuit…Thanks for pointing out that often the FDA will use the State Ag Dept. to conduct the testing – if the have the facility, the money or a connection to a university lab. Some states are broke, like California for instance. I imagine that may influence how they deal with those requests, although I am not certain. BTW, I LOVE your Gravatar. So cute!

      Reply

      • It was the Diamond aflatoxin recall class action. All I can think to add is that is was a very long time before the suit was announced, so folks should never throw away their documentation. :) Thanks for the comment on the Bosun’s Gravatar. We would all like to leave the steaming swamp and go to the Highlands. :) Thanks again for all of your hard work on this blog. It is appreciated.

        Reply

        • Interesting…I read about that.

          My God, how horrible for you and your poor dog as well.

          I have to believe that those that hurt and abuse animals will be reincarnated as a parasite such as a tic or a flea that will be squashed flat like a bug or eaten by the host it feeds off of.

          I know, it’s weird, but I have to believe the Universe balances out everything in some sort of cosmic trial.

          Reply

          • Not so weird – I have heard that put forth by my father all my life. :)

            I actually had 8 dogs, all eating the food, so it was a terrifying experience. I don’t think I have ever been so frightened and upset.

          • I called my gerorcy story (HEB) to check and see if the romaine lettuce I ate last night is part of the recall. The person I spoke with hadn’t heard about this. I was transferred to the produce manager who claimed her cell phone was connected to a national recall center and she gets message within the hour of recalls. She hadn’t heard about this either. The press release from the the producer of the tainted romaine lettuce went out on July 21st and says that the lettuce was sold to outlets in Texas. I’m hoping they didn’t buy the tainted lettuce or will quickly get the sorted out.Scary stuff.

  7. I have lost two cats this year to complete kidney failure from Friskies cat Food. The vet thought these cats had been into radiator fluid. They didn’t even go outside. I just feel so short changed and so betrayed by all of these pet food companies and it is all about profit.

    Reply

    • What tests did the vet perform to make that diagnosis? Why don’t they ever assume it may be a toxin in a food? I am so sorry you lost both your babies. Did you report it to the FDA? If not, you should, even if your vet “thought” it wasn’t the food.

      Reply

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