Grieving pet owners -- whose dogs and cats became sick or died last year after eating melamine-tainted food -- are one step closer to recovering their economic losses, though not all consumers are applauding a proposed settlement.
One called it "a slap in the face."
A U.S. District Court Judge in Camden, New Jersey yesterday gave preliminary approval to a $24 million settlement in a class action lawsuit that stems from the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.
Last March, Menu Foods of Canada recalled 60 millions of containers of dog and cat food that were tainted with melamine, a chemical used to make plastics.
Thousands of dogs and cats across North America suffered kidney disease after eating the contaminated food. Many died.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) traced the source of that contamination to wheat gluten imported from China.
The $24 million settlement is in addition to the $8 million in claims some companies involved in the pet food litigation have already paid bringing the total figure to $32 million.
A hearing is set for October 14, 2008, on final approval of the settlement, which would resolve more than 100 class action lawsuits filed in U.S. and Canadian courts in the wake of the massive pet food recall.
Lawyers, company react
"We think this (settlement) is a win for consumers," said Sherrie Savett, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the case. "With this settlement, consumers will get as much or more than if they litigated the cases individually. The claims process allows people to recover as much as 100 percent of all their economic damages.
She added: "What we did get out of this settlement for consumers is the possibility of complete recovery of all economic damages -- even for lost carpets and time -- in addition to their veterinary bills. Even in cases where people do not have documentation of their damages, the settlement allows in some cases up to $900 for each person."
Menu Foods, which manufactures dog and cat food under nearly 100 brand names, applauded the settlement.
"Menu Foods is pleased with this negotiated settlement," Paul Henderson, the company's chief economic officer, said in a written statement. "If finally approved, the agreement will provide restitution to the pet owners affected by the 2007 pet food recalls.
"We feel that the pet owners, along with Menu and other pet food producers, were victims of a terrible fraud committed by a company in China," Henderson said.
Pet owners divided
Some pet owners, however, told ConsumerAffairs.com the settlement is not a victory for consumers.
Don Earl, whose beloved cat Chuckles died after eating Menu Foods' Pet Pride food, called the settlement "a slap in the face."
"Extrapolating from the best information available, over a quarter million pets were killed by the poisoned pet food epidemic," he said. "Take a third off the top for the attorneys, and divide by the number of pet owners harmed, they each will get $64."
An Arizona pet owner -- whose 13-year-old Sheltie suddenly died after eating some of the tainted pet food -- agreed.
"I feel that the $24 million is less than a slap on the wrist," said Jerry L. of Goodyear, Arizona. "It's a sad state of affairs and just goes to prove that until pet owners who really care about their pets push their government for stronger laws, these companies will continue to hold our pets at little or no regard.
"The only thing I can say is that I'm saddened and disappointed that our pets are held at so little value," she added. "Sandy Boy's ashes remain in my home and his picture remains proudly displayed around our home."
Pet owner Carol V., of Rhode Island, whose two cats became gravely ill last year after eating Menu Foods' Special Kitty food, echoed those sentiments.
"Twenty-four million dollars does not seem a lot before legal expenses," she said. "And if there are tens of thousands of affected pets (which I believe may be a low estimate), it seems unlikely that pet owners will get back all of their expenses.
"This amount also seems insufficient to me as we are talking about multi-billion dollar companies participating in this settlement."
A monetary settlement, Carol said, can never erase the pain and suffering her cats -- and her family -- experienced because of the tainted food.
One of her cats, Jessica, had to be euthanized last December because of the health problems she suffered after eating the contaminated food.
"There is no amount of money that will ever make this right in my home," Carol said. "Whether it is one penny or the close to three thousand dollars for my vet -- nothing will erase the memory of my cats struggling with trying to stand on their own, hanging over the water bowl, and hanging onto life for months as Smudge (her cat) did and now she struggles with chronic kidney damage and all because I fed them Association Of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) approved cat food."
Canadian author Ann Martin, who has researched the pet food industry for years, is pleased dog and cat owners will receive some compensation.
"Money, no matter how much, will never replace the pets they have lost due to the contaminated food," she said.
Martin and others said pet food makers and the government must now -- in the wake of the massive recall and settlement -- ensure the food that consumers feed their pets is safe. But they are not convinced that's happened.
"I really don't think the food on the shelves now is any safer than what we saw prior to the massive recall," Martin said. "How many of these pet food companies are testing for contamination in the raw materials they are purchasing? It is my understanding that some are now testing for melamine in the grains, but this is just one toxin that might be in the raw material. Are they testing the vitamin/mineral premixes, many which are coming from China or other countries with questionable practices?"
The settlement requires pet food makers to continue testing ingredients imported from China. That, however, doesn't make Martin feel any safer about feeding her animals commercial pet food.
"I'll continue to feed my pets a homemade diet," she said. "At least I know what they are eating, which is more than you can say with many of the pet foods on the market."
Carol is also leery about feeding her pets commercial food.
The system to protect dogs and cats from experiencing another pet food nightmare, she said, is still broken.
"I am not sure what makes me more mad -- that it took a courtroom full of lawyers to come to this decision (settlement), or the fact that I see no changes to our current food supply system to prevent this from happening again. The illness and deaths of beloved four-legged family members should have been a huge wake-up call that the system is broken."
Pet owners like Don Earl said some good has come from the massive recall.
"Many pet owners (including myself) have switched from the recycled garbage promoted as pet food to homemade," he said. "Their pets will live much longer and healthier lives."
Other consumers said the recall has made pet owners more aware of what's in the food their feed their dogs and cats.
And thanks to this settlement, that food should be safer than before the recall, said attorney Sherrie Savett.
"Pet food manufacturers know they will get hit with lawsuits that are meaningful (if their food isn't safe), she said. "I think that would cause pet food manufacturers to be much more careful."
What to do
Meanwhile, pet owners affected by the tainted food can still file claims for their losses.
Those consumers should not contact Menu Foods, the company said. Instead, they should contact the claims administration for the settlement at the following:
In re Pet Food Products Liability Litigation, Claims Administrator
c/o Heffler, Radetich & Saitta LLP,
P.O. Box 890,
Philadelphia, PA 19105-0890
Blizzard of litigation
Pet owners in 19 states -- and Ontario -- filed dozens of lawsuits against Menu Foods in the weeks that followed the March 16, 2007, nationwide recall of dog and cat food. Those cases were consolidated in a federal court in Camden, New Jersey.
The lawsuits alleged unfair and deceptive trade practices, negligence in failing to provide adequate quality control and breach of implied and express warranties.
Some consumers also claimed they suffered emotional trauma after their pets became sick or died.
Pet owners also sought compensation for their veterinary bills.
Companies named in the lawsuits -- besides Menu Foods -- included Del Monte Foods Inc. of San Francisco; Nestle of Stamford, Conn.; Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati; Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. Ltd. in Pixian, China; and Suzhou Textile Import and Export Co. in Jiangsu, China.
Those defendants -- and Menu Foods' product liability insurance company -- will cover the costs of the settlement.
Menu Foods estimated the recall has cost the company $53.8 million.
Cause of death
Veterinarians now blame the dogs' and cats' deaths on the combination of two chemicals FDA officials found in the tainted pet food: melamine and cyanuric acid, which is used to chlorinate pools.
Neither chemical is approved in pet food.
Veterinarians said those two chemicals can combine and form crystals in the dogs' and cats' bodies. And those crystals can impair the animals' kidney function.
"Either one of those chemicals alone wouldn't cause these (deaths)," Dr. Barbara Powers, immediate past president of the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD) and director of Colorado State University's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, told ConsumerAffairs.com. "It has to be the combination of the two. "