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Lawsuits claiming that Beneful kibble is sickening pets have raised questions among pet owners and veterinarians.
Lawsuits are not recalls, and claims that Nestlé Purina PetCare’s Beneful causes illness and death in dogs and cats have not been substantiated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
That’s the message many veterinarians are sharing following media reports that two lawsuits — both potential class actions, each seeking more than $5 million in damages — allege that toxicants in the dry canine kibble has sickened and, in some cases, killed pets.
Dr. Thomas Hansen, a practitioner in Brentwood, California, is skeptical. The symptoms described in the lawsuits — vomiting, bloody stool, weight loss, kidney failure, liver malfunction and lethargy — could be indicative of numerous other problems, from environmental toxicants to infections to metabolic disease, he said.
"They certainly aren't specific to a food-borne cause," Hansen wrote in a discussion on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service.
That doesn't mean veterinarians aren't concerned, having dealt with plenty of pet food recalls including the melamine scandal of 2007. Dr. Elaine Salinger, a practitioner in San Bruno, California, reached out to the VIN News Service on Feb. 28 to get more information.
"One of my patients went into renal failure about one week ago," she said by email. "He had been eating Beneful, and the owner believes there was a recall. Any news about it?"
Dr. Jennifer Larsen, a board-certified nutritionist at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, noted a need for more data. So far, "it's all fear-mongering and hysteria," she wrote on VIN.
“Anyone can file a lawsuit for anything without any hard data or facts, so that alone does not give us any info on whether this is a real issue or not,” Larsen said. “It will be interesting to see how Purina handles this."
Officials with Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. did not respond to interview requests but reached out via the company's website, denying the claims.
“We take these allegations very seriously and stand by our product …,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, class-action suits are common these days. They are not indicative of a product issue. In fact, we’ve faced two such suits in the past with similar allegations. Both were found to be baseless and were subsequently dismissed by the courts.”
A search of legal actions involving Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. did not turn up previous Beneful cases but shows that two ongoing lawsuits involve pet jerky treats marketed by the company. Brands of jerky made by Purina and others have been implicated and are believed by many to have sickened thousands of animals, though scientists and regulators have yet to determine a causative agent. FDA is continuing to investigate.
The first Beneful-related lawsuit was filed Feb. 5 in federal court in Northern California. It alleges that three dogs belonging to Frank Lucido, of Discovery Bay, Calif., fell ill and one later died in January after eating Beneful kibble for three weeks.
The complaint also cites reports — mostly posted in online forums — from more than 3,000 pet owners who say their animals have experienced similar problems after eating Beneful. It’s unclear how many other plaintiffs have signed on to the suit since its filing. The plaintiff’s attorney, Jeffrey Cereghino, could not be reached.
The second lawsuit, filed Feb. 27 in federal court in Boston, was initiated by Paul Malcolm of Saugus, Massachusetts. It contends that Malcolm had been feeding his dog Ben a diet of Beneful Health Weight dry dog food for three or four years.
“As a direct and proximate result of the consumption of Beneful Healthy Weight, Ben became ill and recently became extremely lethargic to the point that he would not move,” the lawsuit states. “During the night of February 25-26, Malcolm was awakened to find that Ben had collapsed. This resulted in severe physical and emotional distress to Malcolm.”
On the Web lies a pattern of similar complaints, the lawsuit alleges. “The Internet is replete with complaints from dog owners about Beneful and the adverse effects on their dogs from consumption of Beneful, including serious injury and death.”
An online search reveals the prevalence of such accounts, with owners relaying how their pets got sick after eating Beneful, a diet that some had been consuming for years.
According to the lawsuits, propylene glycol could be to blame for the incidents. “Propylene glycol, an automotive antifreeze component that is a known animal toxin and is poisonous to cats and dogs,” the Lucido lawsuit states.
The compound is commonly used as a sweetener and is an FDA-approved food additive for humans and dogs. It is not the same as ethylene glycol, which also is used as antifreeze and is well-recognized for sickening and killing dogs that are attracted by its sweet flavor and apt to lick up puddles from antifreeze leaks. Propylene glycol is prohibited for use in cat foods because it’s been shown to cause abnormalities in their red blood cells.
Beneful contains propylene glycol. Though the kibble is strictly marketed for dogs, an Internet search reveals that plenty of owners feed it to their cats.
In addition to propylene glycol, the lawsuits mention menadione, “a controversial and harmful form of vitamin K, linked to liver toxicity, allergies and the abnormal breakdown of red blood cells.” Mycotoxins also pose a significant health risk to dogs, and both plaintiffs suggest that Beneful kibble could contain them.
The Malcolm lawsuit alleges: “The Association for Truth in Pet Food (ATPF) conducted testing of Beneful Original and found that it contained high risk levels of mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are a group of toxins produced by fungus that occurs in grains, a principal ingredient in Beneful.”
The ATPF bills itself as the “only organization that works to provide pet food consumers a voice within the pet food regulatory process and with pet food manufacturers themselves.” According to a news report, officials with the nonprofit say they’ve paid for laboratory testing on Beneful kibble and have heard complaints about the dog food from hundreds of pet owners. ATPF officials could not immediately be reached.
On its website, ATPF provides an overview of toxicants that the group's laboratory tests have detected in several popular pet food brands, Beneful included.
Nestlé Purina PetCare says it tests for mycotoxins and that incoming grain, which could harbor the poison produced by fungi, is assessed for quality and safety. Hansen questioned the scientific credentials of the Association for Truth in Pet Food and added, "I can't find any information that their claims have been validated by a recognized laboratory or veterinary school, nor have I heard of any recalls."
Numbers of complaints referenced in the lawsuits greatly exceed those reported to the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. Since January 2011, the FDA has received approximately 400 reports about Beneful pet foods. FDA spokeswoman Megan Bensette said the reports reference approximately 480 sick dogs and 140 deaths, including one cat.
She cautioned that FDA adverse event reports have limitations in that they do not demonstrate causality or the proportion of consumers using the product who have filed a complaint. Additionally, adverse event reports do not take into account factors such as existing disease, exposure to chemicals or contaminants, or other foods and medications that may have triggered or contributed to the cause of the event.
Bensette noted that pet food manufacturers are subject to FDA inspection and required by law to produce food that’s safe and properly labeled. As for the alleged toxicants, Bensette wrote that the FDA has established regulatory levels for several mycotoxins, such as aflatoxins, fumonisins and deoxynivalenol, that would not pose a safety risk to animals:
- Aflatoxin should not exceed 20 parts per billion, equivalent to 0.02 parts per million.
- Deoxynivalenol (also known as DON or vomitoxin) should not exceed 5 parts per million on grains and grain byproducts destined for all animals, with the added recommendation that these ingredients make up no more than 40 percent of their diet. Thus, the DON level in pet food should not exceed 2 ppm.
- Fumonisins should not exceed 100 parts per million with the added recommendation that corn and corn byproducts make up no more than 50 percent of the diet. Thus, fumonisin levels in complete pet foods should not exceed 5 parts per million.
Bensette added the FDA does not comment on pending litigation or investigations but stressed that the existence of a complaint does not establish that there’s a problem with the product.
The FDA encourages anyone with concerns about a specific pet food product to submit a report to the Safety Reporting Portal, which helps regulators to monitor products on the market.
Editor's note: This article was amended from its original to reflect new FDA figures on adverse events reported.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email email@example.com.