The poison pet food crisis is now squarely focused on the reliably damning question: "What did they know and when did they know it?"
Lawyers seeking to certify a Chicago-based class action that now numbers 200 pet owners amended their complaint Wednesday to include charges fraud, in addition to the claims they have already made for negligence and breach of warranty.
They claim that on February 27, following complaints that had been coming in for a week, Menu Foods tested the food on 40 to 50 animals, seven of which "shortly thereafter." On March 6, Menu Foods stopped using a Chinese wheat gluten that turned out to contain the industrial chemical melamine, according to the complaint. The recall began on March 16.
In moving from charges of negligence to fraud, plaintiff lawyers hope to trump the conventional wisdom that pets are considered mere property. A successful fraud suit could generate millions in punitive damages.
"Menu Foods knew about the problem as late as a few weeks before the recall and as early as December 2006,'' lead plaintiff attorney Jay Edelson told ABC News' Jim Avila.
"What's angering our clients most [is that Menu Foods] had tested the food on animals weeks before the recall, knew animals had died, but the first step was to switch the [suspect ingredient],'' lead plaintiff attorney Jay Edelson told ABC News' Law & Justice Unit. "That went on for an additional week.
"They knew a lot of information they kept from the public, and thousands of pets died,'' Edelson said.
Menu Foods did not return several calls for comment.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has so far confirmed 14 pets deaths, though The Associated Press reports that anecdotal evidence suggests hundreds or more pets may have died after eating the tainted pet food. Each case must be investigated, evidence collected, and a direct link determined between a pet death and the tainted food before a death can be positively tied to Menu Foods.
Reaction to the recall has been overwhelming. The FDA has fielded more than 300,000 calls from consumers and has logged 10,000 complaints, according to an agency spokesman. Menu Foods has reportedly received more than 8,000 complaints.
Edelson said that a dozen law firms and interest groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have joined the Chicago suit. Dozens more lawsuits against Menu Foods have been filed in the United States in recent weeks, according to an ABC News database search of federal lawsuits.
"We're hearing from people across the country who think their pets would be alive if it weren't for this,'' he said.
Dawn Majerczyk says the pet food scandal has torn her Chicago family apart.
Her family cat Phoenix began acting strangely the week before the recall, and she said she couldn't understand why.
"The cat was crying -- I mean horrible cries,'' she said. "And he couldn't walk or nothing. I mean, he was lying on the bathroom floor downstairs. … I told my kids there's something wrong with this cat. He was like hiding under the table. Just not himself."
She said she took Phoenix to the vet the day the recall was announced, but by that time it was too late.
"I was watching my cat suffer and die, and I couldn't do nothing about it,'' she said.