When Maria Higginbotham couldn’t find the usual dog treats she buys at her local Target store back in early January, she decided to instead buy some brand-name chicken jerky dog treats for Bandit, her 3-year-old rat terrier.
Four days later, Bandit collapsed on the floor.
He was soon experiencing bloody diarrhea, and by the time Higginbotham and her mother got him to his veterinarian, his organs were shutting down. His liver showed that he had eaten something toxic. Certain that Bandit’s inexplicable illness had already become too severe, the veterinarian suggested putting him down, and Higginbotham’s mother and son agreed.
But she refused, and after nearly $4,000 in medical bills and three weeks of intensive nursing that included in-home I.V. care, Bandit recovered. The vet could not conclusively link the chicken jerky to the illness, but Higginbotham said he thought it could be the cause.
Bandit’s puppyish spark has come back, but Higginbotham remains anxious, feeling an overwhelming sense of helplessness over what she might be feeding her dog.
At the opposite corner of the country, in Eastern Florida, Danielle Kinard-Friedman’s story did not end as well. Two weeks ago, Millie, her 18-month-old yellow Labrador, began vomiting bile after weeks of growing progressively more lethargic.
When Millie wouldn’t eat anything, Kinard-Friedman took her to a vet. Blood tests revealed that Millie was experiencing kidney failure, and so she spent a week in an emergency pet clinic receiving intensive treatment that eventually proved futile. She was put down this past Sunday.
It was Millie’s vet who asked Kinard-Friedman if she had been feeding her dog chicken jerky treats. She had. In fact, she had just started buying the treats — under a different brand-name from Bandit’s — two months prior.
The vet then asked a more alarming question: Was the chicken from China? She had no idea, but she checked the label as soon as she got home. It was. When Higginbotham checked her treats, she found the same thing. Their vets could not prove anything, but both suspected the treats had sickened the dogs.
Higginbotham and Kinard-Friedman have now joined thousands of pet owners speaking out on the Internet and asking the government to force a recall of chicken jerky dog treats made from Chinese chicken. Concerns over the issue first arose in 2007, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began receiving reports of sickened dogs, all with the apparent common denominator of chicken jerky treats from China.
Since then, the FDA has performed hundreds of tests on chicken jerky samples and has not yet found any contaminant to explain the illnesses.
Regardless, the movement has continued to gain significant momentum. In the past month, it even got the attention of Ohio’s Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Dennis Kucinich after Ohio resident Candace Thaxton contacted them about two of her dogs who fell ill.
Until a cause is uncovered, owners and lawmakers say they will continue requesting that the FDA make the issue a priority, while the 15 companies implicated by consumers see no empirical evidence to justify recalling their products.
Congressmen and FDA sink their teeth in
On February 7, Brown brought the issue to the Senate floor, saying he had urged the Food and Drug Administration to accelerate its investigation into these chicken jerky treats — found under multiple brand names but all sourced from China — that appeared to be sickening dogs across the country. Two weeks later, the senator held a press conference and issued a news release again urging the FDA to act swiftly.
Back on Nov. 18, 2011, the FDA cautioned consumers that chicken jerky dog treats from China may be associated with a rising number of dog illnesses. This followed earlier warnings of the same issue in September 2007 and December 2008. After a drop in 2009 and 2010, reports of dog illnesses have spiked once again.
The November 2011 FDA notice warned dog owners who purchased chicken jerky to monitor their pets for decreased appetite, decreased activity, vomiting, diarrhea (including bloody), increased urination or increased water consumption. If any of those symptoms worsen or last more than 24 hours, owners should bring their dog to a vet, the notice said. Blood tests could indicate kidney failure, while urine tests might indicate Fanconi Syndrome, a disorder that results in nutrients normally absorbed into the bloodstream instead being released through urine.
On Wednesday, an FDA spokesperson confirmed to Food Safety News that the agency has recently received more than 600 reports from dog owners who say their pets have fallen ill because of jerky products made from Chinese chicken.
Since the issue first arose in September 2007, the FDA has run numerous chemical and microbial tests on Chinese chicken jerky samples in search of a contaminant. Though the agency said it could not conclude anything from the test results, the details remained under wraps until March 1, when an FDA document describing tests dating back to 2007 was sent to Kucinich’s office. According to a Kucinich aid, the congressman “took them to task” at a briefing in order to get the information.
The one-page document outlines 241 tests for potential contaminants and 130 tests with pending results, none of which conclusively link the jerky to contaminants at dangerous levels. The 2012 tests with results still pending, however, are searching for heavy metals.
The Kucinich aid and many pet owners said they hope those latest tests might finally link the treats to a toxic substance and resolve the mystery of their pets’ problems. The FDA has stated repeatedly that it will continue to actively investigate the issue.
According to the FDA, at least one Australian chicken jerky manufacturer has issued a recall of its products made from Chinese chicken, calling the move a precautionary measure.
The manufacturer may be mindful of March 2007, when hundreds of pet illnesses linked to melamine-contaminated Chinese ingredients prompted the recall of thousands of pet food products in the U.S., Europe and South Africa. In the U.S., the FDA received thousands of reports of dogs and cats dying from kidney failure, but confirmed very few cases.
More consumers come forward, but pet food industry says they’re not to blame
A month ago, the private Facebook group called “Animal Parents Against Pet Treats Made in China!” had roughly 100 members. Today, the number has exploded to more than 2,500. One petition demanding the ban of jerky treats from China has acquired more than 3,000 signatures.
Susan Rhodes created another petition on March 3. She has asked the FDA to recall the jerky treats after she found that her dog, Ginger, had suffered permanent kidney damage and was losing weight at an alarming rate. Rhodes said she had been feeding the treats to Ginger for the past two years. Days after creating the petition, she has racked up more than 300 signatures from dog owners reporting similar diagnoses.
Media coverage and word of mouth have brought a tidal wave of attention to the manufacturers of these treats. Some of the snowballing coverage, however, might lead some pet owners to incorrectly blame other health problems on the treats, said Kurt Gallagher, spokesperson for the Pet Food Institute, an industry education and public relations resource.
“Pet food companies want to make safe, nutritious products. It’s their top priority,” Gallagher told Food Safety News. “When everyone’s talking about something like this, I think there’s heightened awareness and sensitivity for pet owners looking for it.”
Gallagher recommended pet owners take any sick pets to a vet to get a clinical opinion before diagnosing any issues themselves. If the vet considers pointing a finger at a certain food, the owners should contact the food manufacturer. Food companies should be tracking their complaints and looking for patterns and problems within their food supply, he said.
Pet owners have been quick to amass lists of jerky manufacturers sourcing their chicken from China. Rhodes’ petition, for example, names 15 such companies.
A spokesperson for a dog treat company at the center of the furor reiterated that the FDA’s testing has not found any contaminants and so his company has no reason to believe their product has sickened dogs. The company has a comprehensive food safety system at their Chinese facilities, he said, including quality control inspectors who monitor for safety.
He added that his company appreciated hearing from concerned customers, and emphasized that anecdotal evidence, however pervasive, does not prove causation.
“Obviously, we take food safety very seriously,” he said. “Millions of dogs enjoy our products without ever getting sick.”
Multiple pet owners have told Food Safety News that the spokesperson’s company has backed away from its original intention to offer customers small monetary settlements for harm their jerky might have caused pets. According to sources, once the complaints reached a certain volume, spokespeople for the company told customers that providing any settlements would be an admission of guilt.
Made in “America”?
Blogger Mollie Morrissette has been following the chicken jerky developments for more than a year on her website, Poisoned Pets. She said that the issue has reached a sort of tipping point in the last month, with more and more pet owners speaking up about sick dogs.
“I get letters every day from broken-hearted pet parents — people who had to put down their beloved family dog or five month-old puppy,” she said. “They all fed their dogs chicken jerky.”
One issue frustrating pet owners, Morrissette said, is that many of these dog treat packages boast that they are made in the U.S., though the fine print on the package often reveals that the chicken actually comes from China, where a cultural preference for dark meat makes for cheap white meat.
These “country of origin” claims are made possible by laws that say that once an ingredient is “substantially” altered in a given country, the resulting food can be considered a product of that country. These alterations can include cooking, mixing or otherwise reprocessing the ingredients in some way.
Just as oranges from Brazil can be turned into Canadian orange juice, chicken jerky from China can be reprocessed and repackaged in the U.S. to become a U.S. product. This can trick consumers into a false sense of security about the safety of their pet’s food, Morrissette said.
Higginbotham said that the brand of jerky she bought for Bandit claimed to be “Proudly manufactured by an American company.” Kinard-Friedman believed the same thing about the jerky she fed to Millie.
Morrissette said that pet owners feel helpless as they wait for some sort of justice on behalf of their pet, and she criticized the FDA for what she saw as a lack of urgency in investigating the illnesses.
“A lot of these pet parents are just wringing their hands, hoping the FDA will find some sort of answer,” she said. “If this was [potentially contaminated] baby formula, we would have had the answer when it started five years ago. It would all get pulled off the shelves out of caution as soon as anyone suspected it might be contaminated.”
Owners say they won’t back down until they have an answer
Candace Thaxton, the woman who spurred Senator Brown and Congressman Kucinich into action, has more than one dog motivating her to uncover that answer.
In November 2011, when her 10-year-old pug, Chansey, started urinating unusually often and refusing to eat, Thaxton assumed they were just signs that the dog was getting old.
Chansey’s health quickly deteriorated. At a vet appointment, Thaxton learned that the dog’s kidneys had shut down and she would need intensive medical treatment to recover, if it was possible at all. Thinking their dog had naturally reached end of her life, the Thaxtons chose to have her put down.
Within weeks, the family had adopted a mixed-breed “pixie” puppy named Penny, who earned a pristine bill of health at her first vet appointment.
Right around Christmas Day, Thaxton ran out of the treats that came with Penny when she was adopted, so she started feeding her Chansey’s leftover treats: chicken jerky. Chansey had never eaten jerky until weeks before she grew sick. She died with her first bag half-finished.
In the weeks that followed, Penny started urinating more than usual. After New Year’s Day, Thaxton saw a news story online about the FDA’s warning for chicken jerky made from China. She checked her bag of treats, which said it was from South Carolina.
Then she noticed the text over the barcode: “Made In China.”
Thaxton stopped feeding her the treats, but Penny started vomiting. When the vet saw her, she showed all the same symptoms as Chansey.
“Her kidneys were worse than Chansey’s,” Thaxton said.
Penny went on 24-hour surveillance at an emergency pet clinic. She recovered a week later, but Thaxton was just getting started.
“Candace went to bat,” Morrissette said. “She’s the driving force behind all of this, all the publicity.”
Thaxton filed two complaints with the treat manufacturer — one for Chansey, one for Penny. It looked like she was going to at least get a settlement amount to cover part of her $3,000 vet bill, but the company eventually rescinded as more complaints began to pour in, Thaxton said.
Even before the settlement talks broke down, Thaxton’s story had run on two local news channels. When she was ultimately refused payment, Thaxton promised the company she would take the issue national within the week.
“By Friday night, Congressman Kucinich had written a letter to the FDA. By Monday, I had a press conference with Senator Brown,” she said. “We’ve had two more conferences since then. I talked to Inside Edition. I told them I was going to be the one who pushed. I’m not stopping now.”
Like Thaxton, other pet owners seem determined to keep the pressure on FDA to find answers and hold any guilty party respon
sible. For many, a sense of uncertainty, frustration, and even guilt, lingers.
“Pets are part of your family. When they die, you lose a family member,” Higginbotham said. “I’m dealing with a lot of guilt over this. I’m the one who feeds my dog and is supposed to make sure he’s safe and healthy. How do I do that if I can’t even trust his food?”
Photo captions, from top to bottom:
- Bandit, Maria Higginbotham’s dog
- Ginger, Susan Rhodes’ dog
- Sarge, Ray Parker’s dog. Sarge, a seven year-old chow-corgi mix, fell ill soon after eating a single chicken jerky dog treat, Parker said. After nearly two weeks of clinical treatment, including intensive critical care, Sarge was put down.
- Chansey, Candace Thaxton’s dog