To some customers, it felt like a betrayal when Topeka-based Hill’s Pet Nutrition issued the first of now two recalls for dog food contaminated with alarmingly high levels of a key ingredient.
They had relied on Hill’s reputation for quality and the recommendation of their veterinarians, only to have the tainted food put their dogs’ health at risk.
“Abby passed away on 2/18/19 after being poisoned by Hill’s food!” Sharon Wertman Jespersen of Port Carbon, Pa., wrote on the company’s Facebook page last month. “What will you do for all of the beloved pets we’ve lost?”
Hill’s admission that some of its canned dog food included potentially lethal doses of Vitamin D became a public relations nightmare for the company, provoked more than a dozen lawsuits and reignited a longstanding debate over what we ought to be feeding our pets.
“It’s another learning moment for the public,” said David Yaskulka, CEO of a much smaller pet food company, Nature’s Logic in Lincoln, Neb., which says it uses all natural ingredients as opposed to the processed food in most popular brands. “The prime benefit is it’s shining a light to do a little better.”
Hill’s, the nation’s third-largest pet food company behind Nestle/Purina and market leader Mars Inc., has for decades promoted the health benefits of its Prescription Diet and Science Diet brands, while stressing the company’s strict quality controls.
“Guided by science,” the company says on its website, “we formulate our food with precise balance so your pet gets all the nutrients they need — and none they don’t.”
For Hill’s to now admit that its inspection protocols failed for months to detect a supplier’s error, leading to thousands of dogs being sickened, has many consumers questioning whether Hill’s promises are so much marketing hype.
“I hope the courts will hold you accountable,” Jespersen chided the pet food maker in her online post.
Hill’s declined to comment about the recall or the facts surrounding it, citing pending litigation. But the company has offered numerous apologies in print and on video, expressing sympathy to the pet owners affected.
“We are heartbroken about this recall,” the company’s senior manager of veterinary affairs, Bret Deardorff, said in a video statement posted on the company’s Facebook page. “As pet parents who feed Hill’s ourselves, we know how it feels to worry about their health.”
No trials are set, but the number of federal lawsuits filed on behalf of pet owners keeps growing. Since Hill’s announced on Jan. 31 that it was recalling certain batch numbers of wet dog food, 16 class-action complaints have been filed in six states. All but one of those cases remains pending.
Law firms that specialize in product liability cases have initiated litigation on behalf of potentially thousands of people whose dogs were sickened or died from eating food that Hill’s said was laden with excessive amounts of Vitamin D.
In court documents, plaintiffs say Hill’s should have been aware months before announcing its recall that a supplier of synthetic vitamins and nutrients had made a mistake in the mixing process as far back as August. They say Hill’s “dragged its feet,” considering that on Dec. 3, two months before Hill’s sounded its warning, the federal Food and Drug Administration had issued one of its own.
The FDA had detected Vitamin D levels nearly 70 times higher than the intended dose in a number of dry dog foods that were then subject to recall. Hill’s wasn’t one of the manufacturers named. But the December recalls were tied to a supplier of pre-mixed vitamin and nutrients that multiple pet food companies had in common. That should have raised red flags for Hill’s, the lawsuits said.
While an essential nutrient, too much D can lead to kidney failure and death. The symptoms of an overdose, the FDA said, are similar to when dogs eat rat poison.
Ulysses Esparza’s dog, Spikey, began displaying signs of excessive exposure to Vitamin D in early December, three weeks after a routine checkup at which the vet prescribed Prescription Diet w/d to help manage Spikey’s weight.
Suddenly, Spikey was always thirsty. He had fits of vomiting and his diarrhea got so bad that Esparza, of Waukegan, Ill., put diapers on the 10-year-old Chihuahua-terrier mix.
Spikey’s passing on Dec. 21 sent his owner into a deep depression from which he’s yet to recover.
“He was like my son,” said Esparza, one of 249 plaintiffs named in a lawsuit filed this month at the U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan. “Money is not going to bring my dog back. I miss him so much. To this day, I still cry.”
Hill’s offered to pay up to $500 to cover veterinary bills incurred by people whose pets got sick, or who had them tested because they had eaten the tainted food. More compensation is available in some circumstances with proper documentation, the company said in a note to customers.
But Hill’s, a subsidiary of consumer products giant Colgate-Palmolive, has also come in for criticism from some pet owners who thought the company representatives they spoke with over the phone were more interested in making a case to excuse the company from liability.
“They called me and asked a lot of questions about what my dog was eating, treats, vet visits and medications,” said Susan McPherson of Beaufort, S.C., who had her 13-year-old dog Junior put to sleep last October. “Basically, they were trying to attribute it to something else besides the food.”
Hill’s has also come in for criticism for insisting that, in exchange for receiving reimbursement for their vet bills, customers promise not to sue.
Attorneys representing clients in a Rhode Island class-action case argued in a court filing that the do-not-sue clause was improper and that Hill’s should also pay for cremation and burial expenses.
But not everyone feels like expending the time and energy of going to court. Donna Nehrenz of Pasadena, Md., for one. Make no mistake about it, she’s angry.
“I preached to friends and family how good Hill’s was,” she said, “now I feel like some folks are rubbing it in my face.”
She racked up $915 in veterinary charges trying to save her dogs Macy and Zoe after they ate the recalled pet food. Zoe alone survived.
But she said she “will go with their settlement,” in part because she doesn’t have much use for lawyers and because “in my heart (I) know Hill’s didn’t intend for this outcome.”
No one has alleged otherwise. The company’s late founder began making pet food in the late 1930s and Hill’s has been widely praised as a leader in the field of pet nutrition.
But the most recent lawsuits repeat some of the accusations made in earlier litigation. Both groups of cases challenge the company’s claims that its dog and cat foods provide superior health benefits and are of better quality than other foods on the market.
Consumers and some of the company’s competitors have alleged in court filings that those claims are overblown. They say that the foods sold by Hill’s are no more “science based” than competitors’ products. And they claim it is “a sham” for Hill’s to sell its Prescription Diet line, as the name implies, only by prescription because the food contains no medication and the government doesn’t require it.
The company engages in such marketing, according to one of the lawsuits filed in Kansas this month, “to confuse and mislead consumers and intimidate veterinarians into writing ‘prescriptions’ for a product that is simply dog food.”
Dog food that can sell for two to three times more than bargain brands.
Hill’s counters that pets suffering from kidney disease and other problems benefit from its special formulations, and that a veterinarian’s advice is warranted when it comes to choosing the proper food to feed a dog or cat with special medical needs.
“Doctors prescribe things all the time that don’t involve medication,” an attorney representing Hill’s argued in a federal appeals court case last September in Chicago. “They prescribe bed rest, they prescribe exercise, they prescribe diets.”
Hill’s reputation figures into the lawsuits growing out of the Vitamin D recall, plaintiff’s lawyers say, because pet owners trusted the company to provide pet food that was safe.
For the pet food industry, the episode is an unfortunate reminder of much more extensive pet food scare more than a decade ago that involved some 180 brands, including Hill’s.
Although a total number was never established, thousands of pets died or were sickened in 2007 because pet food ingredients imported from China were tainted with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics. Scores of lawsuits were filed and roughly $24 million was paid out in damages to consumers and their lawyers.
The global pet food industry — estimated $91 billion in sales for 2018 — has spent the years since earning back the public’s trust by focusing on quality controls and emphasizing the use of more natural ingredients.
A plethora of boutique pet nutrition companies have entered the market, selling food for dogs and cats that even their owners might be tempted to eat, and a small minority of pet owners prepares raw foods for their furry companions.
But most pet owners still buy the big-brand name products in super markets and pet stores, trusting the manufacturers are providing their pets a balanced and safe diet.
Asked for comment, the organization representing the pet food industry, the Pet Food Institute, issued a written statement Friday saying that while the Vitamin D recalls by Hill’s and others have been unfortunate, pet owners should not be fearful.
“Pet lovers may not realize that pet food is among the most highly regulated food products in the United States and must meet federal and state requirements,” institute president and CEO Dana Brooks said.
Recalls are an important part of the food safety system, she said, and when they are necessary, “PFI members rapidly work internally and with regulators to remove a product from the shelf.”
Unfortunately, the Hill’s recall notice came too late for Sharon Wertman Jespersen in Pennsylvania. This weekend she planned on adopting a replacement for her dog Abby, who even at 16 left her too soon, she says.
“I had her since she was 4 months old,” Jespersen said. “I cry every night when I walk in the door and feel guilty that I fed her that poison.”