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Will food ever be safe?

By IVAN PENN
Published April 28, 2007


What's a pet owner to do? You check the recall list and the product you feed your pet isn't there.

So you keep using the same pet food.

But then, as it has several times already, including late this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announces an expansion of the recall list. With almost 5, 600 products listed, you search again. And your brand has been added.

That's what happened to Debbie Cmar. When the recall first was announced, the 43-year-old Oldsmar woman checked the list for her brand, Nutro Max Gourmet Classics.

It wasn't there.

But it showed up on the list weeks later - too late for 11-year-old Petunia, a Siamese cat, and 16-year-old Princess, a Persian. They died April 18 and 19, both of renal, or kidney, failure, the cause of death for pets who have eaten the food laden with a toxic substance.

Cmar has spent some $9, 000 trying to save her cats.

"I think the most disturbing thing was my cats showed signs before the food was recalled, " Cmar said. "It's really very scary when you start seeing the magnitude of it all."

Several of Michelle Johnson's nine dogs have shown signs of illness.

Yogi, a 7-year-old black poodle, has been fighting for his life for several days. Abby, a 15-year-old West Island terrier, died a week ago.

"It's real traumatic for everybody, the dogs, for us and even the rest of my family, " said Johnson of Clearwater. "My mom, you know she loves the dogs, too."

Abby and Yogi were diagnosed with renal failure. But Johnson's pet food, Natural Balance's Ultra Premium and Eatable dog foods, are not on the recall list.

Natural Balance has tested those products and found they do not have the ingredients involved in the recall: wheat gluten, corn gluten and rice protein imported from China.

Those three ingredients contained a toxic substance called melamine that has caused illness and death to pets.

Daniel Bernstein, a spokesman for Natural Balance, said the company has tested the products and will again test the Ultra Premium. But he said he's confident the product is safe.

"The Ultra Premium is the food I feed my dog, " Bernstein said. "I'm not paid enough to kill my dog. ... There's no smoking gun."

An expanding list

The Food and Drug Administration announced a nationwide pet food recall in March after melamine - which is used to make plastics - was discovered in pet foods made by Menu Foods. It has since expanded to thousands of products.

Not all of the items listed on the recall have been determined to be detrimental to pets. Some companies recalled products as a precaution.

On Friday, federal agents searched facilities of a pet food manufacturer and one of its suppliers as part of the investigation into the widening recall.

The inquiry follows an FDA announcement Thursday of an expansion of the recall list after pet food manufacturers identified products that contained the contaminated rice protein.

Lawyers have begun soliciting clients over the Internet for class-action lawsuits against manufacturers.

As more animals arrive at pet emergency rooms with kidney problems, the recall is prompting more questions than answers.

Dr. Jean McKnight, a veterinarian at Animal Emergency of Countryside in Palm Harbor, where the Johnsons' dogs were treated, said she's seeing a rise in cats and dogs coming in the hospital with kidney disease.

Before the recall, McKnight saw a pet a month with kidney problems, mostly older ones with a problem that likely developed over time because of age.

Since the recall, she said, she sees at least an animal a week. The pets come in with acute renal failure, meaning something attacked their systems.

"We've seen several animals that were suffering with kidney problems related to the food, " McKnight said. "The next thing you know the food is on the recall list."

Linda Jones, owner of the Pinellas Memorial Pet Cemetery and Crematory, said while she has had just one cat confirmed to have died as a result of eating food that had been recalled, customers have been left wondering whether their dog or cat also was a victim.

"I had several of my customers say they thought it might have been because of the food, " Jones said. "They said, 'It was perfectly healthy yesterday and then it died.' "

Dr. Kathryn Michel, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinarian Medicine, said pet owners should be cautious about abandoning pet food, even to cook their own stews.

"Dogs and cats have very specific nutrition requirements, " Michel said. "Understandably, people are confused right now. ... What my recommendation for people is keep checking that recall."

Damage may last

Like Cmar and Johnson, Diana Portillo of Valrico said the pet food she was using has not been added to the recall list, but her 9-year-old chihuahua died after vomiting and suffering diarrhea.

"By the time we took him to the emergency veterinarian, he died, " Portillo said.

The emergency room gave her a body bag. There was nothing more they could do.

So far, the state officially has recorded 16 deaths believed to be associated with the pet food recall. The majority of them were cats.

Dr. Jim Maxwell, who oversees the state Bureau of Diagnostic Laboratories, said he believes the pet illnesses and deaths so far are just the "tip of the iceberg."

Maxwell said even those pets who receive treatment might suffer long-term kidney problems and still see their lives cut short.

McKnight, the veterinarian from the emergency hospital in Palm Harbor where the Johnsons' dogs were treated, said there have been a wide range of symptoms for the kidney disease cases she has seen.

It could be lethargy, vomiting or diarrhea. The key is to look for unusual behavior. A veterinarian will run blood tests to check for kidney failure. If the pet food is suspected, McKnight said owners can contact the manufacturer so the food can be tested and added to the recall list if contaminated.

If the pet dies, for $50 the state will take a tissue sample or conduct a pet autopsy, called a necropsy, to examine the cause of death.

Johnson said her dogs have suffered it all. She has spent several hours a day getting treatment for her pets, sometimes missing work.

"It's a shock, " she said. "We don't know actually what we're up against."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Ivan Penn covers consumers issues. He can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or 727 892-2332.

Fast Facts:

More information

To report adverse reactions or problems with FDA-regulated products, contact the FDA's Florida district office consumer complaint coordinator at (866) 337-6272.

Making pet food

Pet nutritionists do not recommend owners make their own food, but if you do, they suggest preparing a balanced diet with help from such Web sites as www.balanceit.com.