Have 2 top-rated pet food brands been exposed as frauds? Or, has a “shady” class-action lawsuit filed in 2018 set out to do little other than trash these pet foods’ stellar reputations?
Depending on whom you ask, you’ll probably get a different answer.
On March 1, 2018, a class-action lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court (Central District of California) against Champion Petfoods, maker of premium pet food brands Orijen and Acana, accusing the company of “negligent, reckless” practices, false advertising, and “failing to disclose the presence of heavy metals and toxins” in its pet foods.
In the weeks that followed, similar lawsuits were filed, including one in Wisconsin — that one was eventually dismissed.
The lawsuits all claim that Orijen and Acana contain “levels” of arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and BPA, which are “all known to pose health risks to humans and animals,” while the foods market themselves as using “fresh, natural ingredients.”
One of the 3 primary plaintiffs in the class action, Jennifer Reitman, claims her dogs “were getting sick” after 4 years of her feeding them a variety of dog foods made by Champion Petfoods, specifically:
- Orijen Six Fish Dry Dog Food
- Acana Lamb & Apple Singles Formula Dry Dog Food
- Acana Duck & Pear Singles Formula Dry Dog Food
- Acana Regionals Grasslands Dry Dog Food
Other varieties singled out include:
- Orijen Original Dry Dog Food
- Orijen Regional Red Dry Dog Food
- Acana Regionals Meadowland Dry Dog Food
- Acana Regionals Wild Atlantic Dry Dog Food
The lawsuit says past testing by the Clean Label Project has demonstrated that these products contain heavy metals and BPA. For example, the Clean Label Project awarded Orijen Six Fish a mere 1 star (out of a possible 5) in the category of “Heavy Metals (Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead and Mercury)” — meaning that Orijen Six Fish has a higher level of these metals than other brands of dog food.
Petful subscriber Terry M., a service dog trainer, echoed many others we’ve heard from over the past few weeks when he told us he doesn’t know what to think: “I am concerned, skeptical and frightened at the same time. We use Orijen dog food, and so do my clients.”
“Meritless” Orijen Lawsuit?
Champion Petfoods has slammed all of the lawsuits, calling the allegations “meritless and based on misinterpretation of the data.”
“While we plan to comprehensively refute the wide range of false allegations in a court of law at the appropriate date, in the interim we want you to be confident in the safety and quality of our products,” the company said in a statement posted on Facebook.
It’s not uncommon to find heavy metals and/or toxins in pet food. In fact, the FDA has put in place a set of standards for them — a pet food is deemed safe if the amounts of these substances fall below a certain level.
Champion Petfoods says the metals in its food are found in “minuscule amounts” that “are a safe and common component of both human and animal diets.”
In the past, the company has argued that heavy metals shouldn’t even be described as “contaminants” at all because most of these metals are naturally occurring and may even have nutritional value at low enough levels.
The company points out that its average of 0.89 mg/kg arsenic in Acana and Orijen dog foods is far below the maximum tolerable limit of 12.50 mg/kg; its average of 0.09 mg/kg cadmium is far below the limit of 10.00 mg/kg; its average of 0.23 mg/kg lead is far below the limit of 10.00 mg/kg; and its average of 0.02 mg/kg mercury is far below the limit of 0.27 mg/kg.
The fact that the lawsuits rely upon data from the Clean Label Project — which awarded a 5-star rating to Alpo dog food, and which Dog Food Advisor, Whole Dog Journal and even Forbes have described as using “controversial,” “scare mongering” tactics and just plain “bad science” — demonstrates that there’s not a whole lot of evidence to back up their claims.
“We have no idea how much of these [metals] may actually be in the pet food products tested, because the Clean Label Project did not release any data at all,” writes Debbie Phillips-Donaldson, editor-in-chief of Petfood Industry.
“Everything is reported in relative terms; i.e., how a pet food compares to others overall,” says Dr. David Dzanis, DVM, PhD, DACVN, referring to the Clean Label Project’s star-rating system. “Without numbers, it’s impossible to tell whether [any reported amounts] are materially different from each other, or if in fact any of those tested are anywhere close to what could potentially cause adverse effects.”
One commenter online pointed out, “It’s also not specified which forms of the metals were tested for. For example, organic arsenic is far less toxic than inorganic, and organic is what is typically found in seafood. Similarly, we don’t know if they were testing for methylmercury, inorganic mercury, etc. Very small traces of heavy metals will be found in many (if not most) food products.”
Another commenter summed things up this way on Facebook: “It is a shame that a company like Champion, which has had zero [U.S.] recalls and a stellar reputation since 1985, is being trashed without any due diligence given to actually researching these claims. A lawsuit is NOT a recall.… This lawsuit is shady and shouldn’t be taken as gospel.”
“Targeted by Frivolous Claims and Lawsuits”
On its website, Champion says it “is being targeted by frivolous claims and lawsuits, and we will continue to defend ourselves vigorously.”
In February 2019, a federal judge dismissed the claims in the Wisconsin case and entered judgment in favor of Champion. The court noted that if a claim could be made against products marketed as healthful but that also happened to contain naturally occurring heavy metals, “consumers would have grounds to sue the manufacturer of nearly every product in a typical grocery store.”
Champion says, “Plaintiffs in these lawsuits have shifted their focus, from their original claim regarding heavy metals, to attacking random statements on our bags. This suggests that these lawsuits are in fact frivolous. Quite clearly the plaintiffs are grasping at straws.”
The company adds: “Due to the high quality of our ingredients and the related price point, we believe that we have been unfairly targeted by the plaintiffs and their law firms.”
Consumer Lawsuits Are on the Rise
Regardless of how things shake out with the class-action Orijen lawsuit, which is still making its way through the legal system, it does demonstrate one thing for sure: Consumers want pet food makers to know they’re being watched closely. And that can’t be a bad thing.
There seems to have been a sharp uptick in these types of lawsuits over the past several years as buyers of pet food have begun to question what is on the labels.
In 2015, for example, a California man named Frank Lucido sued Nestlé Purina PetCare, alleging that Beneful dog food “contains substances that are toxic to animals and that have resulted in the serious illness and death of thousands of dogs.” Lucido asked veterinarian Dr. Jena Questen, DVM, and veterinary toxicologist Dr. John Tegzes, VMD, DABVT, to test a sample of Beneful. Both doctors did so, and although measurable levels of mycotoxins, heavy metals and propylene glycol were found in the food, they were within acceptable FDA amounts.
Dr. Tegzes did have one important argument, though: “The FDA limits for mycotoxins were established based on short-term acute exposure and therefore do not adequately take into account chronic exposure.” In short, no studies have been conducted on the long-term health effects for an animal who regularly consumes these chemicals.
Nestlé Purina moved to have both doctors’ reports dismissed, and the court agreed. The court stated that Drs. Questen and Tegzes were not “qualified as experts,” and their reports were removed from the testimony.
In 2016, the court ruled in favor of Nestlé Purina, saying: “The Court rejects Plaintiffs’ position that a reasonable jury could find Beneful unsafe based on the mere fact that 1,400 dogs ate Beneful and got sick or died thereafter.… There is no evidence such as an evaluation by a veterinarian that a dog actually did get sick or die because it ate Beneful.”
In another, similar suit filed in July 2017, WellPet LLC and its parent company, The Berwind Corp., were sued for allegedly failing “to disclose the presence of dangerous substances in their pet food,” namely arsenic and lead. In January 2018, the courts dismissed Berwind as a defendant; however, the case is ongoing and the court denied WellPet’s motion to dismiss.
This is WellPet’s second lawsuit in as many years. In 2016, the company was sued for marketing its food as “Made in the USA” when some of the vitamins come from overseas. In early 2017, a judge dismissed that suit.
In December 2016, a group of consumers banded together and sued the pet food industry’s heavyweights — Mars Petcare, Nestlé Purina PetCare, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, PetSmart, BluePearl Veterinary Partners and Banfield Pet Hospital — for selling pet foods marketed as “prescription food” even though there was apparently nothing about the foods that would require them to have a prescription. In July 2017, that case was dismissed, with the court stating that the plaintiffs had failed to prove their case.
Finally, in February 2018, a lawsuit was filed against Big Heart Pet Brands Inc., demanding that the company “disclose [that] its pet food sold throughout the United States is adulterated and contains pentobarbital.” This lawsuit is still in its initial stages.
So, What Should You Do?
It’s hard to know how to react when we see a pet food recall come across our feed or get wind of a lawsuit against a company we trust. We want to protect our pets, and so our first reaction — switch pet foods, blame, accuse — may be understandable but not always appropriate.
“Unlike recalls, lawsuits are based on complaints and accusations only,” says Mike Sagman, managing editor of Dog Food Advisor. “If you’ll Google the name of almost any major brand, you’ll likely find hundreds of complaints, claims and lawsuits for many of their products.”
So, before you jump to conclusions, take some time to do a little digging of your own:
- Research your pet food company. Look up its recall history, its ingredients labels and its mission statements.
- If there is an incident — like the Orijen/Acana lawsuit — find the details and read them thoroughly.
- Talk with your veterinarian. Tell her your concerns and ask for an honest opinion of the food.
- Learn how to read pet food labels and practice this skill diligently in the store. Pet food companies change recipes without notifying consumers all the time, so periodically check labels to ensure nothing’s changed.
Most important, don’t panic. We have the right to demand transparency and appropriate food from the pet food industry. Use your voice when necessary.
Remember, our pets can’t speak. It’s up to us to be their voices.
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Melissa Smith contributed to this article, which was originally published in March 2018 and was last reviewed and updated on June 1, 2019.