Anger Grows Over Tainted Pet Food

By Donna St. George and Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 24, 2007

When Lucy died, she left behind both heartbreak and mystery. Robyn Heidary's pointy-eared pup was just 10 months old, a toy fox terrier who had always been energetic and playful, then abruptly grew ill and -- in spite of $8,000 in medical interventions -- succumbed two weeks ago at a Gaithersburg animal hospital.

Heidary, 22, said her grief turned to outrage last week when she learned about a nationwide recall of contaminated pet food. She rushed into her kitchen, threw open her cabinet and grabbed the cans of Lucy's food.

All were Nutro Ultra -- an expensive brand that boasts "Nature's Very Best Ingredients." As Heidary checked the cans, she wondered whether Lucy might have been poisoned -- a possibility that seemed more likely yesterday after the disclosure by New York agriculture officials that several samples of pet food tested were tainted with rat poison.

The toxin, a chemical known as aminopterin -- used in China and the Far East but not permitted as a rodent killer in the United States -- can cause kidney damage in dogs and cats. Even so, federal officials were cautious yesterday about drawing conclusions.

"We're very interested in the discovery of the compound, but we want to make sure all causes are ruled out before confirming one particular cause," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration's center for veterinary medicine.

The FDA's investigation at two Menu Foods factories, in New Jersey and Kansas, is continuing, he said. The government has not ruled out the possibility of sabotage, he said, although he called the prospect of product tampering "low." One possible route for the contamination is the company's imported wheat gluten, which was not used in human food, he said.

A sense of urgency is building, with pet owners nervous about signs of illness in their dogs and cats, veterinarians treating sick animals and a class-action lawsuit underway. It started last Saturday, when Ontario-based Menu Foods announced the recall, which affects more than 60 million "cuts and gravy" cans and pouches -- not dry food -- sold under 95 brand names, including Safeway, Wal-Mart and Giant.

Paul Henderson, chief executive of Menu Foods, which requested the New York testing, said yesterday that the company was expanding its recall to "cuts and gravy" pet food regardless of the production date. He also said the company would take "responsibility" to compensate pet owners for vet bills if tainted food is to blame.

How many pets have died or been sickened is unclear. There are 14 government-confirmed pet deaths, but Sundlof said the FDA's centers have been flooded with 4,400 calls. "It's way too early" to determine the exact number of pets sickened, Sundlof said.

The Web site has been taking case reports, with a database that includes 1,100 dead animals. Even if half of those were definitively linked to the contamination, "it's still staggering," Heidary said.

At Suburban Animal Hospital in Arlington County, veterinarian Gary Schrader said that after learning rat poison could have sickened pets, he reexamined the ultrasounds of four cats brought in with renal failure in recent days. The records on all four showed a strange brightness around the kidney -- usually an indication of poisoning, Schrader said. Two cats have died, one has recovered and one is "hanging in there," he said.

"This is all very speculative. There is a hysteria about the food, and we are trying to get the facts together," Schrader said. "Last night and today, I felt myself not getting the information I needed, and I don't think anybody is -- this whole thing hit everybody by surprise."

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