Purina is defending Beneful dog food from consumers' allegations that it made their dogs ill. But whether consumers accept the explanation remains to be seen.
"We have reviewed our consumer contacts and are confident there are no product quality or safety issues with Beneful, and consumers can continue to feed Beneful with complete confidence," Beneful spokesman Keith Schopp said in a statement to ConsumerAffairs. "Purina’s quality control procedures are among the strictest—if not the strictest—in the industry, and our products are formulated by professional pet nutritionists and veterinarians."
Schopp was responding to complaints posted on ConsumerAffairs and elsewhere by pet owners who say their dogs became ill or died after eating Beneful.
While no one has been able to definitively determine whether or not Beneful or any other substance was responsible for the incidents portrayed in the consumer postings, that hasn't stopped pet owners, bloggers, reporters and others from speculating heatedly about the controversy, a process that veterinarians say doesn't accomplish much.
"These statements are not backed by any scientific studies, and the conditions described in the postings are amongst the most common conditions seen in everyday veterinary practice," said Dr. Stephen Ettinger after reviewing many of the posted consumer reports.
Ettinger, a Cornell graduate who has been a practicing veterinarian for 40 years, is a Nestlé Purina Fellow in Veterinary Medicine but is not a Purina employee. He is the editor and a contributing author of the Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, a book used throughout the world by veterinary students and clinicians for peer-reviewed information on veterinary medicine, including nutritional aspects of medicine.
"When a pet is sick, pet owners often look first to the pet’s food as the cause. However, it is rare that their food is responsible for the illness," Ettinger said in an article published by DVM360.com, a trade publication for veterinarians.
"I’ve read through many of the current comments regarding Beneful and believe they do not provide any evidenced-based rationale for making such claims," Ettinger said. "[F]rom these internet descriptions, it seems possible that these animals were ill to begin with and thus the diet (Beneful or otherwise) likely had nothing to do with the illness."
"I do agree that ANY abnormalities noted by pet owners should be brought to the attention of their veterinarian, and any concerns with a particular product should immediately be brought to the attention of the manufacturer so that information can be collected and products appropriately monitored," Ettinger said. "The veterinarian and the pet owner then can decide whether to contact the FDA, as well. To date there has been no evidence that Beneful has caused any problems when fed to dogs."
Sincere but misguided?
While Purina and Ettinger seek to assure pet owners and veterinarians that there is no scientific evidence to tie Beneful to pet illnesses, others have gone after the pet owners themselves, accusing them of fabricating the complaints. Some have criticized ConsumerAffairs and other sites for posting the complaints. One blogger even suggested we made up the complaints.
We placed calls to several consumers whose complaints were recently published on our site, to verify that they had submitted the complaint and that they considered them truthful.
"Maxxie left us this morning," said Liz Korfin of North Miami Beach in her ConsumerAffairs posting. "We had the pleasure of 12 AMAZING years with an incredible doggie."
We telephoned Ms. Korfin, whose dog Max is pictured here, and got her permission to use her last name. Consumer reviews are posted to our site using just the consumer's first name but we collect additional information that is not normally published. Several of the consumers we talked to gave their permission to use their full names. Some, like Korfin, also supplied photos of their dogs to lend credibility to their postings.
"I can't say it was 100% Beneful that caused the problem but why won't someone help us -- help us figure out why all the dogs are dying?" Korfin said.
We next contacted Katherine Hudson of Palm Harbor, Fla., who confirmed her posting, in which she said that she read complaints posted here by others when her dog began showing signs of illness and switched her to homemade food.
"I have no doubt that you saved my dog's life," Hudson said, referring to consumers who had posted their experiences on ConsumerAffairs. Hudson was less complimentary about Purina. She said Purina offered to reimburse her for some of her expenses when she called their corporate office.
"I told them that wasn't necessary. I wasn't contacting them for money, I was giving them a heads-up," she said. Hudson also filed a report with the FDA and had heard nothing in response when we spoke on Feb. 26.
Tell the FDA?
Some who have criticized consumers for posting their complaints on sites like ours have said they should instead file a report with the FDA.
One consumer, Nina of Berrien Springs, Mich., took that advice to heart. She not only posted to ConsumerAffairs about the problems her dog Kopper had with Beneful, she also decided to file a complaint with the FDA, hoping to get some action beyond just posting her complaint publicly.
"It took me over three hours and multiple attempts to get the complaint submitted -- VERY frustrating -- so that is possibly why there's not many complaints filed," Nina said.
Then there's Samantha Hyatt of Moore, Okla., who submitted her posting Feb. 26. Her Westie died after exhibiting many of the symptoms described by others.
"Yes, of course you can use my name," she said. "I want to share my experience in the hopes that we can save pets!"
Others we spoke with included Samantha Kellstrom of New Hampshire, who said her dog has been improving on a hamburger and rice diet, and Patty Hogan of Hopatcong, N.J., who said she has just passed the $500 mark in veterinary expenses but is beginning to see some improvement in her dog.
Vets get blamed
Pet owners who bundle up their sick dog and rush to their veterinarian are often dismayed to find that the vet has heard nothing about problems with Beneful. Veterinarians respond that this is because there has been no evidence of problems with Beneful products.
A review by ConsumerAffairs of the alerts sent to veterinarians by the FDA and professional organizations found nothing regarding Beneful.
"Nothing had been provided through any of the professional channels about problems with Beneful," said Marie Steele, a Ph.D. candidate who has spent $650 so far on her ailing dog. "The vet hadn't heard a thing about it."
"My 3-year-old French Bulldog became sick two weeks ago. I took her to the vet that morning and they found her ALC Liver score was high," said Shannon Smith of Medford, Ore. "The vet keeps asking me, 'What could she be getting into?'"
Shannon told us her dog is kept inside except for short periods of time in a fenced yard, leading her to suspect that the food is the culprit.
It's not surprising the FDA has no information on it, said Steele, who said filing an online complaint with the FDA was nearly impossible because of the level of detail the online form asked for and the inability to save the form and come back to complete it later.
Whatever is happening, if anything, it started about a year ago on Feb. 28, 2012. That's when we received the first complaint about Beneful. A total of 182 complaints were sbumitted in 2012. In the first 56 days of 2013, 275 were submitted.
The geographic distribution of the complaints is not as uniform as one might expect. This chart shows the top 15 states for Beneful complaints to ConsumerAffairs:
Not surprisingly, most of the complaints come from the most populous states but there are far fewer complaints from California, New York, New Jersey and other megastates than would typically be the case in a nationally distributed product.
With a sample size of fewer than 500 complaints, however, it's not really possible to draw any meaningful conclusions.
"We stand by the quality and safety of Beneful dog food," spokesman Schopp insisted. He listed these quality control measures that are applied to all Beneful products:
- Suppliers of ingredients for Purina products must meet our stringent standards for ingredient specifications, product safety, sanitation and manufacturing practices.
- We closely monitor and control each step of the pet food production process, from raw ingredients through finished goods. We have a comprehensive food safety program, which is specifically designed to prevent food quality or safety issues from occurring in the first place. HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points) plans and preventative controls are a standard best practice not only for pet foods, but also for human foods, and the U.S. FDA will soon require these types of preventative controls.
- Additionally, we conduct physical inspections and analysis of finished products to ensure they meet our quality assurance specifications.
- We carefully monitor and review all information provided to us by consumers and can confidently state that there are no product issues with Beneful.
What to do
What should consumers do if their pet falls ill? The first step is to contact their veterinarian and take the animal in for examination as soon as possible.
If food is suspected, save all packaging and keep a sample of the food itself. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling pet food.
The consumer or, preferably, the vet can file a report with the FDA if food or snacks are thought to be responsible. The online report form is long and complicated and many consumers find it difficult to complete, so it may be a task best left to the vet.
Schopp said consumers should also call the manufacturer of the pet food if a problem is suspected.
"We take all comments from consumers seriously. We encourage any consumer with a question or comment about one of our products to call and speak with us directly at the toll free number on every package," he said.
And, while critics may question the usefulness of consumer sites, filing an online report helps make other consumers aware of issues that may affect them. Even if it turns out that some consumers may reach the wrong conclusion in their postings, sparking a public discussion helps raise awareness of the importance of monitoring pets' health -- and it's worth noting that there have been cases of contaminated pet food and snacks that have come to light through online postings.