Court clears path for pet-food settlement claims payout

Resolution to melamine poisoning claims years in coming

Published: April 05, 2011
By Edie Lau

Four years after pet food contaminated by poisonous melamine killed and sickened tens of thousands of cats and dogs in North America, a court opinion issued today may open the door at last to payment of claims by owners of affected pets.

The opinion by Judge Noel Hillman in U.S. District Court in New Jersey was the last piece of court action required to put to rest appeals of a $24-million pet food settlement approved by Hillman in October 2008.

“I am hopeful that we can begin processing claims shortly,” said Lisa Rodriguez, liaison counsel for the multiple class-action suits covered by the settlement.

According to court documents, 24,344 claims were submitted by the Nov. 24, 2008, deadline. Of those, 20,550 have been deemed payable. The average claim is about $1,283. Allowed expenses included medical attention, lost wages, property damage and the price of replacement pets. The settlement covers claims by owners in the United States and Canada.

The long wait for restitution has distressed and infuriated pet owners. “I will be dead before this settles,” one claimant raged in an e-mail to the VIN News Service last year. “Maybe that is what they hope ... (that) people will forget. Well, I still miss my best friend every day.”

“I’m so frustrated,” another fumed in 2009. “I spent over $6,000 trying to save my little dog but he died anyway.”

The melamine debacle, which precipitated the largest recall of pet food in history, was caused by unscrupulous suppliers in China. They spiked wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate with nitrogen-rich melamine, an industrial chemical, in an attempt to boost the ingredients’ apparent protein content. Wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate are used as protein sources in pet food.

The imported contaminated product ended up at Menu Foods Ltd., a pet-food manufacturer in Canada that was contracted by numerous companies to produce both private-label and name-brand wet pet foods. (Menu Foods Ltd. was bought last year by Simmons Pet Food of Arkansas.)

Many of the biggest names in pet food were drawn into the scandal, including Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Mars Inc., Nestle Purina PetCare Co., Royal Canin, The Iams Co. and Procter & Gamble. Large retail chains such as Wal-Mart, Target, Petsmart, Petco and Costco also were affected. The recall involved more than 150 pet food brands.

The Veterinary Information Network, an online professional community and parent of the VIN News Service, estimates that between 30,000 and 50,000 animals were affected, judging from member surveys and tracking. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has estimated that about 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs died, based on consumer reports received by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

More than 100 class action lawsuits filed in the wake of the poisonings were addressed by the court settlement of October 2008. Pet owners were invited to submit claims immediately, but payment of the claims has been delayed since then by two court appeals.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District reviewed the matter and concluded late last year that the settlement was “fair, reasonable and adequate” except for one issue about which it wanted more information.

That issue was related to the limit of purchase claims to a maximum of $250,000. The opinion filed today by Judge Hillman lays out why that purchase-claim limit also is “fair, reasonable and adequate.”

A website has been set up to inform the public about the status of the pet food settlement. However, as of 5 p.m. Eastern today, the most recent update posted was dated Dec. 16.

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