Lawsuits Build Against Maker of Tainted Pet Food

ByABC News
April 3, 2007, 6:11 PM

April 3, 2007 — -- 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.