The results of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection into a Diamond Pet Foods production plant may benefit the trio of lawsuits filed against the Missouri pet food manufacturer tied to a Salmonella outbreak and recall earlier this year.
That inspection, conducted six days after the first of Diamond’s eight recalls, found numerous health violations, including failures to clean and maintain equipment and a lack of contaminant screenings on raw ingredients. The evidence does not bode well for Diamond as the company faces three separate lawsuits from human victims and pet owners in the U.S. and Canada, according Benjamin England, a 17-year FDA veteran and founder of FDAImports.com, a food industry consulting firm.
On his blog last week, England highlighted Diamond’s situation as a cautionary tale for other food manufacturers. If Diamond had operated in compliance with FDA rules, England said, they would appear much less culpable and could use the favorable inspection to bolster their legal cases and public image.
Instead, it’s being used against them. The lawsuits specifically cite the inspection report as evidence of Diamond’s negligence and breach of warranty.
“It looks to me as though there’s a relationship between the violations at the facility and the adverse situations the company is facing now,” England told Food Safety News. “You can’t predict when an outbreak or recall might happen, but you can eliminate a lot of risk through compliance.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, multiple brands of Diamond pet food have sickened at least 20 Americans and two Canadians with Salmonella Infantis since March. The agency says it’s impossible to determine the number of dogs sickened, as so few pets are ever tested for gastrointestinal bacteria.
Diamond initiated its first recall on April 6 after routine testing by the Michigan Department of Agriculture discovered the contaminated kibblein a bag of dog food pulled from a store shelf.
Class action lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. and Canada against Diamond and retailer Costco on behalf of pet owners who have had pets die or experience severe illness after eating Diamond’s product. Another lawsuit in the U.S. has been filed on behalf of a New Jersey couple whose infant fell ill with the outbreak strain.
The FDA inspection report will only help those plaintiffs win higher settlements, England argued. But more than that, it might tip attorneys off to search for prior inspection reports that could dig up further evidence of violations and negligence.
The law firm leading the U.S. class action suit on behalf of pet owners, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, secured a $24 million settlement last year in a class action suit against Menu Foods after a 2007 recall of Melamine-tainted dog food. The firm came under some criticism after Kathy Forcier — one of more than 24,000 plaintiffs in that case — revealed that she had received a settlement check for $58.76, while the firm retained $7.4 million in contingency fees.
However the lawsuits progress, England said he would be “shocked if Diamond didn’t settle on all fronts.”
After the fallout from the outbreak and recalls, England said that Diamond must resort to “damage control” — making it clear to customers that plant management has been revised and the product’s quality improved.
For everyone else, he sees it as another reminder of the importance of FDA compliance:
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking this happens to the other guy,” England wrote on his blog. “It happens to whom it happens to, and it could be your company. One unfortunate event can bring the entire weight of the federal government to bear upon your door.”© Food Safety News