Important Notes: The following post contains my personal views and is not an endorsement or detraction for any particular products. I do not have detailed knowledge of any pending legal cases, nor am I associated with the defendant pet food company.
I am sure most of you have already read about the lawsuit filed in California last week against Nestle Purina by a concerned and grieving pet owner. This lawsuit claims that all three of the owner’s unrelated dogs became ill after consuming Beneful dog food, with one of them, an eight-year-old English Bulldog, dying from this mystery illness. The lawsuit further alleges that an ingredient used in the food (propylene glycol) is toxic to dogs and that the grains were contaminated with mycotoxins. The lawsuit seeks to prove that both factors caused the dogs’ illness, or at the very least they seem to be trying to hammer Nestle Purina with enough bad PR through emotionally charge, but poorly detailed media reports that they will settle out of court.
I have had a number of friends and family contact me over the last week asking what I thought about the lawsuit or if they should stop feeding Beneful to their dogs. My good friend over at Pawcurious recently addressed this question in her blog, but I wanted to chime in officially, too (mostly because I had already started writing this post). The short answer is no, if your dog is doing well (eating, drinking, acting normal) then don’t change their diet. But…as I’ve said before, there is no one perfect diet-feeds-all when it comes to dog and cat foods and if you have any specific concerns then Beneful (or whatever brand you are feeding) may not be the best diet match for your pet. My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a beloved companion. The death of a dog or cat is always hard and bereaved caregivers are often left looking for someone or somewhere to place the blame, but it is important to look at the merits of a media claim before jumping to conclusions for your own furry family member.
Lawsuit Problem Point #1: Propylene glycol is a compound used as a humectant (meaning it retains water) in pet foods and treat, and also has the added bonus of being anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. This is what keeps the chewy bit chewy, but prevents them from becoming green and fuzzy. Propylene glycol has been used in dog foods and treats for decades and is “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) for dogs by the FDA even at high dosages. On the other hand, propylene glycol is definitely toxic to cats (causes damage to red blood cells resulting in anemia) and has been banned in and around cat foods since 1996. Since the diet in question is clearly a dog food, I am not worried its use here. Propylene glycol and ethylene glycol are NOT the same thing. Ethylene glycol is antifreeze and is toxic to everyone. There is no antifreeze in Beneful.
Lawsuit Problem Point #2: Beneful is the most popular diet Nestle Purina sells, with a reported 1.5 billion “meals” served in 2014. Which means just based on the numbers, even if 0.0001% of those meals caused a problem you would be able to find “thousands” of unhappy customers (1,500 each year to be exact) on an internet fishing expedition. If the same food only sold 1.5 million “meals” on any given year, that same percentage would only cause 1.5 adverse events each year and no one would have even noticed. I am making up these percentages and numbers, but you get the idea. With enough sales, even normal variations are magnified. Yes, there will be dogs that have not and will not do well on Beneful, just as there are dogs that will not do well on every other brand of food out there. In practice I have seen and treated dogs for adverse reactions to every single brand of food you can think of (and some you’ve probably never heard of). No one food is perfect for every dog.
Lawsuit Problem Point #3: The clinical signs reported through the media and named in the lawsuit do not fit with any pattern to establish food toxicity. The signs listed range from vomiting and diarrhea, to seizures and bloat, to internal bleeding, liver failure and kidney failure. If this was something like ethylene glycol (actual antifreeze) or even melamine and cyanuric acid contamination, every dog would develop kidney damage. If this was a mycotoxin I would expect vomiting, diarrhea and liver damage. I find it very hard to believe that a particular food would have not just one of these food-borne issues, but all of them. The signs listed are too varied and inconsistent to have a pattern, which is what happens when dogs get sick from random chance and just happen to be fed the most popular diet sold in the United States.
Lawsuit Problem Point #4: It is being promoted through the media, not the FDA or other knowledge based sources. Conspiracy theorists may start to scream and shout that Big Pet Food is in bed with the Government, but the reality is that every pet food company and animal feed raw material provider screens for mycotoxins and while it is nearly impossible to have a zero mycotoxin level, this is regulated by the FDA and high levels are an actionable offense. Additionally, real or potential product contaminations are a serious health and public safety concern and are why the FDA established the Reportable Food Registry in 2009. Any pet food or treat at any time (no matter where it is sold or how much it costs) can have a production issue and the FDA relies on diligent pet owners and primary care veterinarians to report any suspected problems as soon as possible so they (the FDA) can investigate and force a recall if and when needed. The FDA would not take a “wait and see” approach with human or animal health and Nestle Purina did not become a multi-billion meal provider by harming dogs. That is a terrible business strategy.
So what do I think may be the real story behind this lawsuit? If I was to guess I would say older pets without regular heath screening fed a low cost diet that does not fit their particular needs. We don’t know the health status of the dogs in question before the diet change, or why the diet was changed in the first place. Also having a lower price point does not mean that a food is “bad” or “junk food” it just means that the combination of ingredients and larger amounts of plant-based ingredients are less expensive from a manufacturing standpoint. Less cost to manufacturer means less cost to the pet owner, but these combinations can also make the diet less digestible. A less digestible diet result in more poop being produced; a fact that will not agree with every dog, but no food is perfect. At the risk of talking in clichés, correlation is not the same as causation and cost does not always equal quality. So in the immortal words of Douglas Adams…
Lisa P. Weeth, DVM, MRCVS, DACVN