January 19, 2006

Contaminated Pet Food Kills Dozens of Dogs

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We know this is a tragic situation for our customers. But we will continue to do the right thing and be fair and consistent with all who are affected.

So read the final phrase of a statement released by Diamond Pet Food for its concerned and saddened consumers. Unfortunately, for dozens of pet owners who have lost their beloved dogs, this statement comes too late.

On December 13, 2005, Diamond Pet Foods recalled 19 brands of dog food that scientists found contained aflatoxin, a deadly fungal toxin that leads to liver damage. After three bodies of deceased dogs were sent to Cornell’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC) from Mendon, N.Y., specialists discovered a link between the deaths and liver damage.

“A pathology resident had contacted me. It looked a lot like a previous outbreak that had happened in Texas in 1998, so we were able to tentatively say that it looked like aflatoxin and called the company,” said Karyn Bischoff, a veterinary toxicologist at Cornell.

Diamond Pet Foods officials were apparently unaware of the dangerous situation when contacted by the Mendon veterinarian. Bischoff began by testing a feed sample and giving Diamond a sample to test as well. After one of the four samples came back from the lab positive with high levels of aflatoxin, Bischoff confirmed the toxin as the culprit.

Tests run by Diamond had similar results, and the company released a press release and recall statement to nationwide consumers and suppliers. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets also issued a press release.

Mark Brinkmann, chief ooperating officer of Diamond, issued a letter to thousands of suppliers warning them about the contaminated dog food.

Unfortunately, the catastrophe struck at an inopportune time. Because of the holidays, information concerning the recalled products was not effectively disseminated or received.

“Diamond tried very hard to get the information out, but during the holidays people didn’t pay as much attention to the news. [Diamond] has been trying to respond as best they can. They’ve been trying to make best of bad situation,” Bischoff said.

Sara Sanders, a veterinarian at Mendon Valley Animal Hospital near Rochester, reported that nearly half of dog owners bringing sick pets to the office during the past few weeks were still unaware of the Diamond Pet Food incident, according to an article published in the Cornell Chronicle on Jan. 6. Sanders’ clients have become more educated since recent press reports, Bischoff said.

“Even though Diamond, Country Value and Professional brand dog foods have been recalled for containing highly toxic aflatoxins, they have caused at least 100 dog deaths in recent weeks,” say Cornell University veterinarians, who are growing increasingly alarmed, according to an article published on CNN.com Dec. 23. “Some kennels and consumers around the nation and possibly in more than two dozen other countries remain unaware of the tainted food, and as a result, they continue to give dogs food containing a lethal toxin.”

Aflatoxin is produced by the fungi Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus and is found on corn and nuts such as walnuts, pecans and peanuts. The recall warned consumers to discard any food produced at the plant in Gaston, S.C. Bischoff explained that the toxin was present in corn used to make Diamond’s pet food products.

In its statement, Diamond also warned dog owners to bring pets with food poisoning symptoms directly to the hospital. Symptoms include fatigue, loss of appetite, vomiting, jaundice and blood-tinged vomit or stools. Because some dogs do not exhibit symptoms for several days, Diamond urged customers to test all dogs who have eaten Diamond products for liver function and blood content.

“Approximately 20 dogs were treated at Cornell, and about one third of them survived,” said Bischoff.

Those who did may never fully recover.

“The liver has an amazing ability to grow back. You can lose about two thirds of the liver and still function. If all the cells in one area die and are replaced by scar tissue, the liver may not grow back and function as well as it used to. It’s going to depend on how badly affected they were by food and how much scarring they have. Some may make a complete recovery and others may have liver problems,” Bischoff said.

Dogs may not be the only animals suffering from this toxic pet food. Cats that might have ingested the contaminated dog food should be tested as well. It has been speculated that two cats that recently disappeared may have eaten the dangerous dog food, but no cause of death has been confirmed.

“I’ve gotten several calls from vets and concerned people that small children have been found eating out of the dog bowl. Those people should contact their pediatricians immediately,” Bischoff said.

Where exactly did Diamond go wrong?

“Usually companies test ingredients as they come in. I know Diamond was testing corn batches and turned a lot of them away, but because aflatoxin is produced by a mold, the mold is concentrated in certain areas-it is not evenly distributed. Although they sample different areas of the batch of corn, there is a chance they can miss a hotspot. That was where we believe the mistake was made,” Bischoff said.

On its website, Diamond reports that due to weather conditions during the growing season, there was more aflatoxin in last year’s corn crop. Diamond speculates that a severe drought followed by high moisture contributed to the growth of the fungus.

Bischoff believes that Diamond will work harder to avoid a repeat incident.

“We have strengthened our testing procedures on incoming shipments of corn, and initiated final product testing as an additive step to our procedures. This additional step will provide an extra layer of protection prior to the bagging and shipping of our products,” says the Diamond website.

Although these extra procedures may help future dogs, the initiative does little to fill the void left by deceased dogs.

“I’ve had a lot of people call me who said, ‘I can’t believe I poisoned my own dog,'” said Bischoff. She urges people to remember that this tragic situation was entirely accidental.

She added, “It’s important for people to understand that they didn’t know, and the company didn’t know. This is a rare situation. There were two previous cases in the ’90s where dog food was contaminated by mold, and there was no way to foresee it. Diamond is going to work hard to not to let this happen again, but no system is foolproof.”

Archived article by Jessica Liebman
Sun Staff Writer