March 16, 2012 -- When Kevin and Candace Thaxton's 10-year-old pug Chansey got sick late last year, the couple assumed at first it was simply old age. The small dog started showing symptoms of kidney failure -- drinking water excessively and urinating in the house. By the time the Thaxtons got her to a veterinarian, Chansey's kidneys had shut down and she was in extreme pain. She died two days later.
"It was so hard. It was just devastating," Kevin Thaxton told ABC News.
But the Thaxtons would go through the ordeal again just weeks later -- leading them to a new theory behind Chansey's death -- when their new Pekingese-mix puppy Penny exhibited the same symptoms, finally resulting in kidney failure. When Candace Thaxton stumbled on a Food and Drug Administration warning that there'd been an increase in complaints about chicken jerky dog treats made in China, she says she knew immediately what had happened to her beloved dogs.
"I grabbed the bag of treats and turned it over," Candace said. "At first I saw it said 'Manufactured in South Carolina' so I thought I was safe. Then I looked harder and it said 'Made in China' and I just said 'Oh no.' "
In just the past four months, the Food and Drug Administration has fielded over 530 complaints from pet owners claiming their dogs suffered illness or death after eating jerky treats made in China, officials tell ABC News. The FDA has issued three separate warnings about Chinese jerky treats in the past four years -- advising owners who give their pets the snacks to watch the dogs closely for signs of illness. But since the agency says it has yet to find a "definitive cause" for the mystery ailments, it hasn't blamed Chinese treats for the illnesses, it hasn't named any of the well-known American firms like Purina that sell them, and it hasn't recalled any of the products. Dog owners and legislators are now demanding action.
News of the possible risk to dogs comes at a time when the safety of imported food is being heavily scrutinized. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control reported that foods imported from other countries are to blame for dozens of recent foodborne disease outbreaks. The CDC looked at outbreaks from 2005 to 2010 and concluded that 39 outbreaks and over 2,300 illnesses came from food imported into the U.S. Nearly 45 percent of the foods that caused the outbreaks came from Asia.
The FDA says it is actively investigating reports of illness and death and has been conducting tests on samples of the treats. An FDA spokesperson said the samples came from around the country but would not cite specific sources that provided the samples.
The FDA issued its first warning about chicken jerky treats from China in 2007, in response to the first wave of consumer complaints, and then issued a second in 2008. When the FDA issued a third warning in late 2011, based on another increase in complaints that year, it asked consumers to report any other purported incidents directly to the agency. Since that update, hundreds of dog owners have come forward to share their concerns. The Thaxtons, who say their dog Penny recovered after they stopped feeding her the treats, are now part of an angry population of pet owners who say the FDA hasn't done enough to protect their four-legged family members in the years it has known about the problem.
"Why are we even waiting for the FDA to get them off the shelves?" said Kevin Thaxton. "It should have been done already."
The Thaxtons say they had fed their dogs Waggin' Train treats, produced by Nestle Purina. The company also produces Canyon Creek Ranch treats, which other consumers have publicly blamed for dog illnesses and deaths. On the Canyon Creek package, an image of a rancher and his dog roaming the farm are on the front; on the back of the bag, the company's address in South Carolina is prominent. Underneath that, in smaller print, it reads: "Product of China."
A spokesperson for Nestle Purina told ABC News that the safety of pets is the company's utmost priority and that production of the treats in China is held to the highest quality and safety standards. "Our chicken jerky treats are safe to feed as directed," said Keith Schopp. He points out that the treats are made in China because white chicken meat is so readily available in the country. Chinese consumers prefer dark meat, leaving an abundance of white meat to be manufactured into treats and imported to the U.S.
But after years of concern over the safety of Chinese imports, including melamine-tainted pet food that the FDA blamed for hundreds of dogs and cat deaths in 2007, consumers -- and lawmakers -- are frustrated with what they say is lax oversight by the federal government.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has been urging Congress to take the Chinese dog treat issue seriously, citing ineffective trade laws that have allowed unsafe products to slip into the U.S.
"[Pet owners] shouldn't have to worry about the safety of the food they give their pets. It's an example again of a trade issue transforming into a safety issue," Brown said on the floor of the Senate in February. "I'm calling on the FDA to accelerate its investigation of the imported pet food, especially food imported from China, where the possibility of food contamination is higher. That's the FDA's job."
The FDA responded to Brown's inquiries in a letter obtained by ABC News, stating that veterinarians at the agency have tested 80 samples and are awaiting results on over 150 more. Melamine tests were negative, as well as tests for toxic metals. "To date," the letter states, "scientists have not been able to determine a definitive cause for the reported illnesses." The letter is signed by the FDA's Assistant Commissioner for Budget.
Brown's office called the FDA response "inadequate" and has sent a second letter to the agency. Brown has criticized how the FDA has made the public aware of its warnings, saying if consumers don't know to go to the FDA website, they'll never know their pets could be at risk.
The FDA wouldn't comment on Brown's statements, telling ABC News it would respond to the senator directly.
Facebook pages and online petitions devoted to pulling the treats from the shelves have been getting reaction from dog owners around the country. One Facebook page is titled "Animal Parents Against Pet Treats and Food Made in China." Another includes photos of dogs who allegedly died from eating the chicken jerky treats.
Petition Demands Recall of Chinese Dog Treats
Susan Rhodes started an online petition to get chicken jerky treats from China off the shelves after her 14-year old German Shepherd mix Ginger suffered kidney failure. Once she stopped giving Ginger the treats, the dog's condition improved, but Rhodes says her aging pet is not well and will likely never fully recover. Her online petition has received 3,800 signatures in 11 days.
"I would like more than a warning. Remove the products from the shelves, whatever they can do," Rhodes said. "Anything but saying everything is fine. Everything is not fine. My dog is not fine."
Schopp, the Nestle Purina spokesman, points out that the company has not been named in any of the FDA warnings and that the reported illnesses may be the result of eating things other than the chicken treats, something the FDA also says in its warnings. "We're always concerned anytime a consumer has a question about our products," he says. "We've looked at this, and we continue to look at this."
Kurt Gallagher from the Pet Food Institute, an industry group, says no company wants to make an unsafe product. When asked about the increase in recent complaints, he pointed to the FDA warning, stating, "People are hypersensitive, so if any health issue pops up, they automatically think, 'This could be what's wrong.'"
Holly McCutcheon, a dog owner who says her fit, four-year-old dog Jack got sick in January, says there's no doubt in her mind that it was due to chicken jerky treats from China. She joined Sen. Brown at a recent press conference to make sure she tells pet owners about the potential life-threatening risk.
"I wanted to speak out because I thought really, what was the FDA doing?" McCutcheon said. "We buy those because we think they're safe."