Pet owners blame six animal deaths on tainted dog food

Salmonella outbreak triggers lawsuit against Diamond Pet Foods

June 6, 2012 (published)
By Marc Selinger

Pet owners have attributed the death of at least six animals — five dogs and one cat — to allegedly contaminated food made by Diamond Pet Foods, according to complaints filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).   

In addition, pet owners have claimed that more than 50 other pets, mostly dogs, became ill after eating Diamond-made products, and that some of the animals required veterinary treatment, the documents show.   

The VIN News Service obtained the reports late Monday through a Freedom of Information Act request. Pet owners filed almost all of the complaints in April and May, a period in which Diamond recalled more than a dozen brands of dry dog and cat food due to concerns about potential Salmonella contamination at the company’s Gaston, S.C., plant.   

The recall was announced after routine tests of Diamond-made dog food led public health officials to link an outbreak of human cases of Salmonella Infantis in the United States and Canada to the handling of the contaminated dog food or dogs that ingested the bacteria.   
Diamond is a commercial manufacturer of pet food, developing products for sale under its own name in addition to manufacturing food for a variety of other companies that, in turn, package it under their own brands.

The complaints filed with the FDA allege that the following animals died from eating tainted food made at Diamond's South Carolina factory:  

  • A 14-year-old Chihuahua that developed diarrhea, lethargy and loss of appetite after eating dog foods by Canidae, Natural Balance and Taste of the Wild.   
  • A 10-year-old German shepherd-golden retriever mix that experienced convulsions, diarrhea, lethargy and loss of bowel control after eating Kirkland Signature-brand dog food.   
  • A 5-month-old Australian border collie (not a recognized breed but how the dog is identified) that had bloody diarrhea and loss of appetite after eating Kirkland-brand dog food.
  • An 11-year-old weimaraner and 12-year-old cat that experienced increased water intake, lethargy and loss of appetite after eating Diamond-brand dog food. Neither animal received medical attention. 
  • A 9-year-old Alaskan husky that developed diarrhea, fever, increased water intake, lethargy and vomiting after consuming Diamond-brand dog food.   

The pet owners could not be reached for comment; the FDA blacked out their names and contact information on the documents. In a letter accompanying the complaints, the agency wrote that it deleted information that “is not required to be publicly disclosed” and disclosure of which “is not appropriate.”   

A spokesman for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said the Canadian government does not collect comparable information about pet deaths and illnesses. But Monica Campo, who runs the Montreal-based cat shelter Humanochat, said tainted Kirkland cat food hit her facility hard and is suspected of causing the death of two cats and the serious illness of a third.   

Kirkland is a private label of Costco Wholesale. In response to a query from the VIN News Service, Costco's Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety, said he was unaware of any confirmed cases of animal deaths or illnesses related to Kirkland products. He stated that while several pet owners have made complaints to Costco, diagnostic laboratory tests on fecal and dog food samples sent by the animals' veterinarians concluded that the dog food was not to blame for the illnesses. Wilson did not specify what laboratories conducted the testing or the tests ordered. He did not know whether those who complained to the company also filed reports with the FDA.

The pet food recalls are “based on human illness,” not animal ailments, he noted. Costco's recall information is listed on its website under "product notices."

Asked to respond to Costco's dismissal that its brand of pet food, manufactured by Diamond, might have sickened animals, Laura Alvey, spokeswoman for the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, noted that unlike with human food, "there is no surveillance network for FDA to rely on to confirm cases of illness or death."

"When there is an outbreak of illness from human food, FDA receives assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state departments of health to trace the illness and determine the cause," she explained.

Salmonella Infantis has been blamed for sickening 16 people in nine states and Canada, and some of those illnesses have been linked to Diamond dry dog food made in the Gaston, S.C., plant, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A New Jersey father filed a lawsuit on May 25 against Diamond, saying the company’s tainted dog food contaminated his home and sickened his infant son.  

An April 20 report by FDA inspectors describes a host of problems at the Gaston plant, including food residue accumulated on hard-to-clean equipment; the use of cardboard, duct tape and other non-cleanable surfaces on equipment; no hand-washing facilities in areas where workers handled finished product; and inadequate steps to screen animal fat for contamination before it entered the production process.   

FDA spokeswoman Alvey said Tuesday that the agency’s investigation of Diamond continues.    

Diamond responded to VIN News Service inquiries about the pet and human illnesses as well as the lawsuit and FDA inspections with this statement: "We are going to pass on providing a comment."   

Besides Costco, none of the pet food companies that hired Diamond to manufacture their pet food provided their perspective to the VIN News Service regarding the reported animal deaths. In an undated press release, Canidae stated: "There have been no positive test results for Salmonella on Canidae products. There have been no complaints of illness reported to us." 

On May 4, Taste of the Wild said on its website, "Although none of the products being recalled have tested positive for Salmonella, the company is pulling them from store shelves as a precaution."  

A video posted May 5 on the Natural Balance Pet Foods website features President Joey Herrick who reassured customers that despite the recall, Salmonella had not been confirmed in the Natural Balance-brand pet foods. Herrick said that although Diamond is its manufacturer, Natural Balance spends $1 million a year on an in-house lab testing for nine different contaminants.

He did not say whether Salmonella was one of them but referred to a phone conversation he had with a Diamond representative who asked that he recall certain Natural Balance products even though they had not tested positive for Salmonella.   

"The issue is that certain Natural Balance products were made in a specific area of the plant that was of concern to the FDA," Herrick said in the video. "The FDA has a very, very difficult job, and they're trying to keep millions of people and animals safe. So of course I said, 'Fine, just tell me which products to recall.' ... I did exactly what we were asked to do."   


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