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Few rights for owners of poisoned pets

The Baltimore Sun

When Brenda Christ's 7-month-old Himalayan kitten started vomiting, lost his appetite and barely moved for two days, the Hanover, Pa., resident knew right away what to do.

First, she rushed little Winslow to the vet, who diagnosed an acute case of kidney failure. Next, she found out from the vet that the likely culprit was half a can of Iams Flakes with Tuna cat food - the sixth can the cat consumed from a batch of 24 that cost $8 at a local megastore. Finally, she called Iams to notify them of her problem and sent them the unused cans of food in an envelope they mailed her.

Then she waited ... and waited ... and waited some more. Finally, about a month later, she learned on March 16 that Menu Foods Inc., a Canada-based pet food manufacturer, was voluntarily recalling more than 90 brands of pet food that it produced for other companies, including Iams, after cases of renal failure were linked to the products.

"They took all my information in February and told me someone would get back to me, but no one ever did," Christ said. "I called Iams again after I heard about the recall, but I still haven't heard from them."

Luckily, her beloved kitty made it through by a whisker. Winslow is back to his frisky, adorable self, but only after several visits to the vet, a weeklong hospital stay and lots of medication. All told, it cost Christ about $1,100 - money she wants back.

The only question Christ has left from the near cat-astrophe was, "What are my rights as a consumer?"

Surprisingly, very few.

"There really aren't any special rights that are triggered when there is a recall," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel at the Consumer Federation of America in Washington.

"This is costing consumers a lot of money. Vet bills can be exorbitant and there have been very serious injuries. But outside of calling a private attorney or pulling a lot of claims together to file a class action suit, there's not much a consumer can do."

If the claim involves a sum under $2,500, consumers could head to small claims court, said Thomas Glancy, a partner at the Baltimore law firm of Gordon Feinblatt.

"Your pet is considered your personal property," Glancy said. "If your property is destroyed or damaged by a product, you are entitled to compensation. It's not treated the same way as if you lose a relative or a loved one, but the rules of evidence are relaxed and you could make a case for it with a letter from the vet saying it was more likely than not that the pet food made the pet sick."

But before you sue for all the kibble your pet can inhale, Assistant Attorney General Rebecca Bowman advises consumers to notify the company first.

"Let them know what the damages are and give them a chance to reimburse you," Bowman said. "In some cases, they will try to make consumers whole. If they are unwilling, you can file a complaint with our office to try to mediate the case or you can decide whether to pursue an action further than that."

To be sure, good companies want to stand by their products and protect their reputation from any blemishes.

Last May, when 76 dogs died as a result of eating contaminated products from Diamond Pet Foods, the Meta, Mo.-based company recalled all the contaminated food. It went one step further by promising to reimburse pet owners for vet bills and other costs associated with aflatoxin poisoning, a naturally occurring toxic chemical that comes from a fungus found on corn and other grains.

In this most recent case, it's still unknown how many pets across the country were sickened by the products.

What is known is that the recall was prompted by consumer complaints and by tasting trials conducted by Menu. The Food and Drug Administration confirmed last week that 10 animal deaths have been linked to the affected food, which were "wet" cat and dog food sold by major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger's, Safeway, Ahold USA and PetSmart between Dec. 3 and March 6.

Since the initial announcement, Nestle Purina PetCare Co. and Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc. said they were voluntarily recalling some products made by Menu to be on the safe side.

Before feeding, you should check the list of the brands at www.menufoods.com/recall/ or call 866-895-2708 and then look for the code dates 6339 through 7073 followed by the plant code, 4197, to see if the food you have is part of the contaminated lot. Anyone unsure of whether their pet has taken ill should look for warning signs such as loss of appetite, lethargy and vomiting, vets say.

In the meantime, investigators discovered last week that rat poison was found in the pet food, but Menu is still investigating how it got into product. According to recent press reports, Menu has said it will reimburse pet owners who can trace their dog or cat's illness to the food.

Iams said it took those same steps last week.

"Contacting us is the first step," said Kurt Iverson, a spokesman for Iams, which is owned by Procter & Gamble Co. "We have veterinarians on staff who speak to the treating veterinarians in order to get their opinions and determine what the pet was affected with. We cannot make a blanket statement that we're covering everyone's vet bills, but we are dealing with each on a case-by-case basis."

Why Christ had not yet heard from Iams is unclear. Iverson assured me that the company contacted Christ several times since February, but perhaps they were using a bad number. On March 19, when we spoke, Christ and her vet, Dr. Gerald Applefeld, had not heard from Iams since February.

"All these symptoms started within hours after he ingested the can," Applefeld said he told Iams at the time. "At that point, they said they had no other reports related to the food. They had no proof that the food was the problem, so I assumed they kept it all on record.

"Then all these other cases started cropping up," Applefeld said.

After I notified Iams that Christ was still waiting for a response, the company made another attempt to contact her and then called Applefeld.

"They called me back Tuesday afternoon and said obviously it was more than just an anecdotal report," Applefeld said. "And then they said we were the first to report the problem and that they were going to cover her bill."

Hearing that was like the cat's meow to Christ's ears.

"I am so relieved and shocked to hear that," Christ said. "It took so long to get back to me that I wasn't sure they were going to do anything. If anything had happened to Winslow, I would have been and my daughters would have been devastated. He was a birthday present to me from my husband. We just love him so much ."

Thank goodness, Iams has shown Christ that they care about her furry little bugger, too.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming

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