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Pet death toll predicted to rise

The FDA expects to find more cases of animals sickened by recalled food as probe continues.

March 20, 2007|Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writer

Federal food safety officials said Monday that they expected the death toll to rise from pet food contamination that has prompted a recall of 60 million cans and pouches of so-called cuts-and-gravy meals.

The Food and Drug Administration said that at least seven of the 10 confirmed deaths -- nine cats and one dog that suffered renal failure -- were a result of tests conducted by manufacturer Menu Foods Income Fund of Streetsville, Canada, after it received customer complaints.

"We anticipate those numbers will increase as the investigation continues," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "We're getting information constantly, and we're trying to put all the pieces together."

On Monday, that included calls and complaints from owners of sick and deceased pets, who flooded phone lines at state FDA offices, as well as from veterinarians, pet food companies and media outlets reporting on the recall.

Rio Hernandez, 38, of Eagle Rock took her healthy orange tabby cat Red to the vet Thursday after his energy level fell and he turned away from his food -- cuts-and-gravy packets made by Nutro, one of the brands on the recall list.

By Friday morning, the vet told her to get Red to an animal hospital because he was suffering kidney failure.

"The vets kept saying, 'This is weird. He doesn't seem like a cat with kidney disease because they're generally older and have signs of wasting, like weight loss,' " said Hernandez, whose cat remains on dialysis.

The FDA said the affected food was produced at Menu Foods' plant in Emporia, Kan. The company, based outside Toronto, also took the precaution of recalling food made at a factory in New Jersey, the agency said.

Sundlof said he could not estimate how many pets were at risk as a result of the recalled food, which was sold under 88 brands, including popular labels Iams and Eukanuba and private-label brands sold at large retail chains.

Nestle Purina PetCare Co., Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc. and Nutro Products Inc. also recalled some products made by Menu Foods.

The FDA said the investigation was focused on problems with wheat gluten, which the manufacturer said had been coming from a new supplier.

Neither the FDA nor Menu Foods would identify the supplier or that company's other customers, saying the ingredient had not been confirmed as the source of the problem.

That supplier does not provide ingredients for makers of human food, the FDA said.

Sundlof said Menu Foods began doing so-called palatability tests on 40 to 50 animals Feb. 27. Animals began showing signs of sickness and dying March 2, the FDA said.

The company notified the agency Thursday about the voluntary recall, Sundlof said. The FDA announced a full investigation over the weekend.

Customers who heard the news over the weekend overwhelmed Menu Foods' hot line, even though it was using the largest call center in the U.S., a spokeswoman said.

Individual brands were coping as well with inquiries from worried customers.

"The entire pet food industry has been responding to calls from concerned pet owners relative to the Menu Foods recall," City of Industry-based Nutro Products said in a statement. "The Menu Foods recall involves only wet, canned and pouch pet foods."

Owners who believe that their animals were sickened by the recalled foods should hold on to documentation such as food labels and information from their veterinarians, said Menu Foods spokeswoman Sarah Tuite.

"Somebody will take responsibility for that," she said. "I don't know yet in what form or what way."

The FDA, which is tracking the number of pets believed to be sickened by the recalled foods, said customers could find phone numbers for local offices and other information at its website, www.fda.gov.

Customers may check Menu Foods' website, www.menufoods.com, for a list of recalled products or call its toll-free recall hot line, (866) 895-2708.

In the meantime, said Sundlof, who is also a veterinarian, owners should contact their vets if their pets show signs of lethargy, loss of appetite or vomiting, especially if they have eaten any of the products on the recall list.

Harvey Ito of Torrance believes that news of the recall may explain the death of his 10-month-old kitten Bond in February. Bond had eaten only Iams food and was a healthy indoor cat, said Ito, 52.

Ito took Bond to the vet on a Monday morning after the kitten refused to play on Sunday afternoon. He was told that Bond, whose kidneys were blocked, would need to stay overnight.

"They said his fever was getting better; I thought I'd have him home," Ito said. "But they called me at 6 a.m., and the vet said he was dead."

abigail.goldman@latimes.com

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