Death by pet food; Mars PetCare accused of exposing workers to deadly gas

An appalling report detailing health hazards inside a Mars pet food plant was released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The report reveals what conditions were like in a Missouri pet food plant owned by the the world’s largest pet food manufacturer: Mars PetCare. In it, the CDC warns of the health risk to employees routinely exposed to chemical and biological hazards during the manufacture of pet food.

Workers exposed to deadly gas

In September 2012, the NIOSH received a confidential request from employees that worked at a Mars pet food manufacturing plant in Joplin, Missouri. The employees reported an alarming number of health concerns: vomiting, seizures, and breathing difficulties, as well as problems with their kidneys and livers, all related to substances used in the manufacture of pet food and dog biscuits and possible exposure to aluminum phosphide, a highly toxic pesticide used to fumigate bulk pet food ingredients.

Phosphine: Category 1 toxin

Aluminum phosphide is classified as a Category I toxin, the highest toxicity of four categories, for acute hazards of pesticide products. According to the Code of Federal Regulations “under no condition should the formulation containing aluminum phosphide be used so that it or its unreacted residues will come in contact with any processed food.” The existing tolerances for residues of phosphine in or on animal feeds from fumigation with aluminum phosphide is 0.1 ppm (40 CFR 186.200 and 40 CFR 186.3800).

Workers reported that the company did not provide a copy of the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard and that phosphine-specific respirators were not available. Workers eventually were supplied with personal phosphine monitors that set to alert at threshold levels of 0.2 ppm and 0.3 ppm; records at the plant of phosphine monitor measurements ranged between 0 and 5.85 ppm.

CDC investigates conditions inside plant

The investigation into work-related respiratory and gastrointestinal illness led to a walk-through site visit from the CDC to the Mars plant in Joplin, Missouri. Based on their initial findings, the CDC planned to return to conduct a full medical survey to assess the respiratory health of workers because of their concerns for possible occupational lung disease, but two months before the scheduled investigation, Mars suddenly closed the plant.

A Mars PetCare spokesperson explained the closure was due to “some changes in the market so we’ve seen a shift to smaller dogs, which means less volume of dry pet food, and then we’ve seen some of our retailers kind of diversify their operations and have many suppliers.”

CDC warns of potential hazards

The CDC recommends medical surveillance and studies in similar plants, as well as careful assessment of the potential hazards of phosphine and flavoring use. They also recognize that, as potential hazards are inherent to the production of pet food that elimination of certain flavorings should be considered. Two of those flavoring chemicals are diacetyl and 2, 3-pentanedione.

According to NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D., “occupational exposure to diacetyl [a flavoring used to impart the flavor and aroma of butter] has been associated with severe obstructive lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, and decrease in lung function.” The ingredient 2, 3-pentanedione, also used to give food the flavor and aroma of butter, is a respiratory hazard that can alter gene expression in the brain of rats.

Required reading: CDC evaluation of health hazards inside Mars

As a result of the CDC’s observations at the Mars PetCare plant of decreased lung function seen in several workers,  the potential for lung injury from repeated phosphine, diacetyl, grain dust, and microbial aerosol exposure, the CDC reportEvaluation of health concerns at a pet food manufacturing facility will be required by employers to post a copy of it for 30 days at or near the workplace(s) of affected employees.

An insecticide becomes a means for mass murder

Development of aluminum phosphide as a source of phosphine gas for fumigation was pioneered by the German company Degesch. Degesch America, Inc. is the only producer of aluminum phosphide (Phostoxin®) fumigants in the United States, the very same brand used by Mars PetCare.

Degesch Phostoxin Tablets & Pellets are used primarily for raw commodity fumigation and burrowing rodent control. However, Degesch has a history for fumigating more than just insects and rodents.

A cyanide-based pesticide invented by Degesch, known as Zyklon-B, was used by Nazi Germany to murder an estimated 1.2 million people, including approximately 960,000 Jews, in gas chambers of extermination camps during the Holocaust.

The Nazis constantly searched for more efficient means of extermination. The Zyklon-B pellets they proved the quickest gassing method and were chosen as the means of mass murder at Auschwitz. Degesch not only supplied the Zyklon-B hydrogen cyanide gas pellets to the Nazi extermination camps, but they used their extensive experience in extermination to design the gas chambers for which it was used in.

In early 1942, Zyklon B had emerged as the preferred extermination tool of the Nazi regime for both the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek extermination camps during the Holocaust. The chemical claimed the lives of roughly 1.2 million people in these camps. At the height of the deportations, up to 6,000 Jews were gassed each day at Auschwitz.  Other concentration camps like Stutthof, Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrueck, also had gas chambers and most of them used Zyklon-B.

As recently as 1979, the Degesch company was still promoting its own design of fumigation chambers for Zyklon-B.

I hope that there never will be a point in history when such horrors are forgotten or ignored.

Degesch fumigant for pests 1929

Reference: NIOSH [2013]. Health hazard evaluation report: Evaluation of health concerns at a pet food manufacturing facility – Missouri. By LeBouf RF, McCague AB, Armstrong J, Boylstein R, Bailey RL, Kreiss K. Morgantown, WV: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH HETA Report No. 2012-0260-3202.


Note: Based on my research of recent pet food plant closures, the only plant closure during the time period referenced in the CDC report was a Mars pet food plant that closed in Joplin, Missouri in June 2013. In addition, the CDC report mentions litigants, and a basic internet search of “pet food lawsuits + aluminum phosphide” uncovered a pending lawsuit against Mars PetCare involving the fumigant aluminum phosphide. Court documents claim that railcars bringing raw ingredients into the plant “were not properly cleared of the dangerous fumigants containing Phosphine (PH3) gas before turning those railcars over to Mars.  Those dangerous gases were allowed to accumulate and disburse into the Mars plant at unsafe levels.” The Joplin Globe news states “Lawless (spokesperson for Mars Petcare) said a plaintiff also has alleged that petfood products manufactured at the plant contain phosphine.”

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Mollie Morrissette

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