FDA Investigating Animal Deaths as Pet Food Recall Continues

Mar. 23 --

MONDAY, March 19 (HealthDay News) -- Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday said they are "still very early" into their investigation of as many as nine domestic cats and one dog died within a few days of consuming moist pet food made by a Canadian company.

The deaths have spurred a massive recall of more than 60 million packages of "cuts-and-gravy" style dog and cat food involving some of the best-known brand names.

"So far, we have not identified any causes of kidney failure," Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA, stressed in a press conference held late Monday. "These could include mold and heavy metals. It appears that some of the food may have been contaminated from an outside source."

The company, Ontario-based Menu Foods Inc., had suggested the illnesses might be linked to their use of a new supplier of wheat gluten, a protein used in the foods. The FDA officials said they weren't sure if wheat gluten is responsible or which company supplied the wheat gluten.

In addition, the agency is not sure that only pet food was contaminated. "Right now we don't think people are at risk," Sundlof said.

The reported deaths were limited to pets that took part in a product taste trial conducted by the company, according to U.S. health officials. The FDA at the teleconference said the agency had no reports of other pet deaths as a result of the tainted food.

The company announced the recall over the weekend for pet food made at a plant in Emporia, Kan., and another in New Jersey between Dec. 3, 2006, and March 6, 2007.

According to Sundlof, the recall involves almost 1 percent of all the pet food sold in the United States.

The recall involves moist-variety pet food only, sold in sealed packets in the United States, Canada and Mexico under 50 brand names of dog food and 40 brand names of cat food.

The brands being recalled include Iams, Science Diet, America's Choice, Preferred Pets, Eukanuba, and Nutriplan. The stores that sold them include Ahold USA Inc., Kroger Company, Safeway, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., PetSmart Inc., and Pet Valu Inc. A full list can be seen at the Menu Foods Web site at www.menufoods.com/recall.

The cause of the deaths among the affected pets has not been determined, although all of those that died developed kidney failure after eating the affected product, the FDA said. The test involved 40 to 50 dogs and cats, the agency noted, adding that Menu Foods has started testing the pet food in question, but so far also has not found the source of the problem.

One animal expert was fairly astounded at the death toll from the test itself. "Anything that has a 25 percent mortality rate is very dangerous, " said Steven Hansen, a veterinarian with the ASPCA's animal poison control center in New York City.

Speaking with The New York Times, Menu Foods spokeswoman Sarah Tuite said the timing of the deaths has been linked to the company's use of a new supplier of wheat gluten. She did not name the supplier, but said that the company switched to another supplier of wheat gluten as of March 6.

Dogs or cats that have eaten the suspect food and show signs of kidney failure should be taken to a veterinarian. According to the FDA, kidney failure in animals is characterized by loss of appetite, lethargy and vomiting.

The agency is also requesting that people with sick or deceased pets who believe their pet might have consumed one of the implicated products contact a state complaint coordinator. A list of coordinators can be accessed at the FDA Web site (http://www.fda.gov/opacom/backgrounders/complain.html).

"We are very pleased (Menu Foods) are putting the alert out before they really determine what is happening," said Stephanie Shain, director of outreach, the Humane Society of the United States.

The FDA and the Humane Society advise consumers who have any of these products to stop feeding them to their pets.

"People should check the web site to see if you have any of the food on the recall list," Shain said. "If you have any of the brands that are listed, you should stop giving it to your pet and contact the company."

Menu Foods is notifying retailers and is arranging for the return of all recalled products. The FDA is conducting an investigation and working with Menu Foods to ensure the effectiveness of the recall. In addition to their Web site, Menu Foods has a consumer recall hotline at 1-866-895-2708.

Tuite said her company will compensate the owners of pets that died, but did not mention a sum, the Times reported.

More information

For more information on pet food, visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

SOURCES: March 19, 2007, teleconference, with Stephen F. Sundlof, D.V.M., Ph.D., Director, Center for Veterinary Medicine, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Stephanie Shain, director of outreach, The Humane Society of the United States; Steven Hansen, D.V.M. veterinarian, ASPCA animal poison control center, New York City; New York Times