Nov. 23, 2012 -- In addition to walk-outs by striking employees, this Black Friday, the nation's largest retailer will be dealing with walk-ins by concerned pet owners. Pet lovers will be marching into Walmarts across the country to urge store managers to pull a controversial product from their shelves.
Dog and cat owners have organized a "Black Friday for Pets" to convince Wal-Mart Inc. to stop selling chicken jerky dog treats made in China. Since 2007, the FDA has received 2,200 complaints from pet owners who claim that their animals suffered illness or death after eating the treats. Owners have attributed the deaths of at least 360 dogs and one cat, usually from kidney failures, to Chinese chicken jerky.
The FDA has issued three warnings about the products in the past five years. But despite an active investigation that has included testing product samples for toxins and heavy metals, the FDA has not yet found a cause for the illnesses and has not issued any recalls.
Walmarts sell several of the popular dog treat brands blamed by consumers for the deaths and illnesses. Organizers of the "Black Friday for Pets" campaign say they're targeting Wal-Mart Inc. because if the retailer "removes the treats from store shelves, it is likely other retailers will follow," according to the group's Facebook page.
Susan Thixton, editor of a website that has been following the Chinese jerky treat issue, is one of the organizers of the event. "Pets are continuing to die from these treats," she told ABC News. "Clearly there's an issue with them, they're unsafe. We're doing this to save pets' lives."
Thixton has provided a script for consumers who are interested in personally urging store managers to take the Chinese-made jerky strips from the shelves. In addition, she and Mollie Morrissette, editor of another anti-jerky website, PoisonedPets.com, have sent a letter to Wal-Mart executives detailing their concerns. Morrissette told ABC News that Wal-Mart and other retailers have been unresponsive to requests to pull the treats from shelves.
"Five years have passed … and they still insist that they will not take action unless there is a [federal) recall. And that disparity is disturbing," said Morrissette.
Since the FDA has not found a definitive cause for the deaths and illnesses, it has limited regulatory options. The agency cannot recall the product or ask that the product be removed based on complaints alone. However, "there is nothing preventing a company from conducting a voluntary recall," according to the FDA's warning from November 2011.
"None of these national retail stores have listened to the consumer," Thixton said. "[Pet owners] are not giving up."
In a statement to ABC News, a Wal-Mart representative said the company is continuing to closely monitor the issue "and remain engaged with the FDA regarding their investigation." Noting that the FDA has not identified the cause of the illnesses or any links with specific brands, the company said, "If evidence is found linking a contaminant to our products, we will take appropriate action."
Wal-Mart also says it encourages consumers to reach out directly to the FDA or the manufacturers of the products.
Consumers have largely blamed two brands for the reported illnesses. Waggin' Train and Canyon Creek Ranch, both produced by Nestle Purina and made in China, were included in the samples tested by the FDA in which no contamination has been found. A website sponsored by Waggin' Train includes video of one of the Chinese processing plants. "The facilities in China are inspected and audited frequently," the video notes. "Additionally, there are quality assurance teams on site who monitor the various steps of the manufacturing process for both safety and quality."
A spokesperson for Nestle Purina told ABC News earlier this year that the safety of pets is the company's utmost priority. "We've looked at this, and we continue to look at this," said Keith Schopp.