Virginia Burgardt blames Nestlé Purina PetCare, the second largest selling pet food maker behind Mars Petcare, for nearly killing her Great Dane earlier this year.
“Skye was vomiting, had diarrhea and losing weight,” said the 54-year-old from Wichita, Kansas, who explained that she has fed two-year-old Skye Purina’s Beneful products for most of the dog’s life.
“Over time, she kept getting sicker and sicker and finally wouldn’t eat,” Burgardt said. “I thought she was going to die.” It was soon after taking Skye to her veterinarian and having tests that according to Burgardt, show traces of antifreeze in the dog’s system. And so Burgardt joined a lawsuit against Purina PetCare. Her dog, she says, “is alive but not well. It’s been very upsetting. I know it was all because of Beneful.”
The suit, originally filed last February by Frank Lucido of California and then amended in June, alleged Purina failed to disclose that Beneful contains dangerous substances, such as mycotoxins and industrial-grade glycols, which are found in some antifreeze products and in human food.
Nestle's Purina blasted the lawsuit as "false" and "unsubstantiated," and stated that the products don't contain "industrial grade glycol." "There are no quality issues with Beneful," the company said.
In the original suit, Lucido claims one of his dogs died from eating Beneful while two others became seriously ill. Beneful has been on pet store shelves since 2001. Purina PetCare, which recently bought organic pet food maker Merrick Pet Care, has more than $11 billion in annual revenues. The suit seeks $5 million in damages.
According to the lawsuit, in the past four years, there have been more than 3,000 complaints online by people saying that feeding their dogs Beneful products resulted in sickness or death. The site, ConsumerAffairs.com, contains more than a 1,000 consumer reviews of Beneful, many of them claiming their dogs were made gravely ill after eating the product.
“There’s absolutely no link between Beneful and pet illness,” said Wendy Vlieks, director of corporate public relations for Nestlé Purina’s Petcare, who added that some 15 million dogs a year eat Beneful products. “We think there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation over this due to social media.”
The original lawsuit listed just Lucido and eight other dog owners whose pets were made ill or died. In June, the lawsuit was amended to include 26 additional plaintiffs. “We want the people who were hurt by feeding Beneful to their pets to receive some compensation for their loss,” said Jeffrey Cereghino, a partner at Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopczynski and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. He’s filed a motion to have the suit be a class-action case.
Purina contends the lawsuit is without merit and their products are completely safe. Last month, the company launched a national campaign to defend Beneful, which is called, "I stand behind Beneful." "Beneful is a safe, nutritious, high-quality dog food," the company said, adding it looks forward to proving the case in court.
Pet food recalls
Purina isn’t the only pet food maker under fire. Last Friday, Nature's Variety announced it’s voluntarily recalling its Instinct Raw Chicken Formula for dogs with a “Best By” date of 04/27/16 due to possible Salmonella contamination. Pet owners feeding the affected product to their animals are urged to discontinue use and monitor their pet's health.
The Federal Drug Administration regulates pet food and FDA spokesperson JuliAnn Putnam said “it must be safe and properly labeled.” But there is no requirement that pet food products have pre-market approval by the FDA, according to the agency’s website. And critics claim food labeled as safe is really not because the FDA doesn’t really do much inspection.
“A lot of so called feed can be hideous animal waste,” said Susan Thixton, a pet food consumer advocate with a group called Association for Truth in Pet Food (ATPF).
One of the most recent and biggest episodes of dog and cat food poisoning was in 2007 when two Chinese companies and an American importer, ChemNutra were indicted on charges of using tainted wheat gluten as a pet food ingredient. Thousands of animals got sick and dozens reportedly died.
The company pled guilty to the charges in 2010 and paid $25,000 in fines while two ChemNutra officials were sentenced to three years probation along with $5,000 in fines for each. This led to the to the biggest pet food recall in history, involving names such as Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Mars Inc., Del Monte Pet Products, as well as Purina, The Iams Co. and Procter & Gamble, that manufactured pet food using the tainted ingredients. It also included retailers like Petco, Target and Costco.
By 2011, more than $12 million was paid on 20,229 claims from the United States and Canada as a result of the case.
The ingredients in Beneful dog foods: Harmful or not?
At the heart of this Purina case is what goes into the various Beneful dog foods and the levels of these elements in the food.
Beneful products contain a colorless liquid chemical called propylene glycol that is used as a preservative and to keep foods moist; the lawsuit filed in February contends this ingredient is one of the main reasons that plaintiffs’ pets became ill or died, though that ingredient was no longer listed in the amended complaint.
The amended complaint, instead of listing propylene glycol as a food ingredient, says Purina failed to disclose that Beneful contains Industrial Grade Glycols (IGG), a a more dangerous chemical. Purina flatly denied using that ingredient in products.
“We don’t have IGG’s in our products,” said Purina’s Vlieks.
As for propylene glycol, it is used in many forms of animal feed and veterinary medicine and found in human food like butter, cake mixes and sodas. But it can also be found in non-food products like antifreeze or in a solvent. And propylene glycol is used to reduce moisture in food, among other reasons.
Dr. Bruce Levitzke, director of the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group in Brooklyn, New York said propylene glycol is generally safe for use in dog food and human foods. But it’s not good for cats, which can’t metabolize it.
“Even in small amounts, propylene glycol can cause destruction of red blood cells in cats,” explained Levitzke, who said he had no professional relationship with Purina or any other pet food maker.
The lawsuit also raises the possibility that dogs’ illness and death are due to the presence of mycotoxins in Beneful products. Toxins produced by mold, mycotoxins can contaminate grains used in pet food. The toxins can target an animal’s liver, which could lead to death.
The FDA’s Putnam said the agency has established regulatory levels of mycotoxins that are considered safe for animals, and Beneful products meet this standard.
But the ATPF said it conducted independent testing of pet foods and found Beneful Original Dog Food Dry contained very high levels of mycotoxins that were harmful to pets. The Pet Food Institute, a trade group, has countered that claim and includes links to veterinarians' and researchers' articles that refer to the group's testing as "pseudo science" and "junk science."
So is it propylene glycol, mycotoxins, IGG, or a combination that’s harming or even killing the dogs? Or is it something altogether different -- and totally unconnected to the dog food?
The plaintiffs’ lawyer Cereghino claim “independent” tests of Beneful have found enough concerning evidence that some veterinarians advise owners not to feed Beneful to their dogs. But Cereghino didn’t disclose details about these independent tests.
Purina’s Vlieks said her company’s veterinarians vigorously test for mycotoxins as well as measure which amount of propylene glycol is safe for dogs. Vlieks said Beneful is made according to high-quality human food-grade levels when it comes to measuring amounts of propylene glycol.
One veterinarian contacted by Fortune agreed. “Responsible manufacturers, such as Purina, test the ingredients they receive from suppliers to ensure they are safe to use in making pet foods instead of just taking the suppliers word for it,” said Dr. Julio Lopez, a veterinarian at Studio City Animal Hospital in Los Angeles.
Lopez said he’s not being paid by Purina or any pet food company but Purina does refer media outlets to him to respond to the current lawsuit.
What about other dog food makers?
Mars Petcare wouldn’t disclose the ingredients in its products. In response to Fortune’s queries, a company spokesperson sent an email, saying, “We hold our finished products until test results confirm our quality standards are met.” The third largest pet food maker, Hill Pet Nutrition did not respond to requests for comment.
Products are required to have ingredient labels, but one study last year found that there was a high rate of mislabeling among pet food.
Kurt Gallagher, who is director of communications for the trade group the Pet Food Institute, points out that just because a dog got ill or died after eating Beneful food doesn’t mean the product caused the illness.
“Owners want answers and there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “There’s not much out there to substantiate the claims against Purina. The nation’s dog food supply is safe.”
But there’s a wrinkle of sorts to the case. The amended lawsuit filed in June charges that Purina offered cash settlements with non-disclosure agreements to some of the plaintiffs.
As for the alleged cash settlements, Vlieks said that it’s common for Purina to reach out to help customers who have complaints. She said that Purina had heard from four of the plaintiffs but no contact resulted in paid claims.
Cereghino said the case is still in the discovery phase and could that could take months. But Purina could have legal precedence on its side. A previous class action lawsuit filed in U.S district court in Missouri claimed Purina’s Beneful dog food caused severe harm and death to dogs was dismissed in January of 2014 for insufficient proof that Purina misrepresented their dog food.
Purina, meanwhile, says it is confident it will disprove this lawsuit in court. "We stand behind Beneful, which is a safe, nutritious, high quality food that millions of dogs enjoy every day," a Purina spokesperson told Fortune. "Cases likes this cheapen the true pursuit of pet health and nutrition by stoking social media hysteria."
But Purina is facing another legal challenge over alleged mislabeling of bacon dog treats. The class action suit contends the treats were advertised as being made mostly of real bacon, when in fact the meat is only a miniscule portion of the pet treats.
“It says on package, ‘dog’s don’t know it’s not bacon’ and we want dogs to think it is bacon, but it’s not bacon,” said Vlieks. “We’re not misleading anybody.”
Mark Koba is a freelance journalist living in New Jersey. You can follow him at @mkoba1234.
This story was corrected and revised to include more of Purina's statements and more throughly reflect the company's position. An earlier version didn't sufficiently make clear that the amended lawsuit had dropped mention of propylene glycol and now mentions industrial grade glycols (IGG) as an ingredient that allegedly harmed pets. (Purina flatly denies that its products contain IGG.) The earlier version also incorrectly stated that one of the largest cases of pet poisoning was in 2008; it was in 2007.