This month, as they’re browsing the shelves of pet stores everywhere, a lot of shoppers will undoubtedly do a double-take when they see new bags of Waggin’ Train Chicken Jerky Tenders.
“Wait — aren’t those the jerky treats that were finally taken off the market last year after all those dogs died?” they’ll ask themselves, eyes narrowed suspiciously.
But their eyes won’t be deceiving them. Like ambling characters from my favorite TV show, The Walking Dead, these zombie treats are indeed rising from the grave.
First, a Little Backstory
Starting around 2007, reports started rolling in that pets were falling victim to — and sometimes dying from — illnesses such as Fanconi syndrome after eating chicken jerky treats sourced from China.
The FDA has never found a definitive cause. Though the treats never were and likely never will be officially linked to the mysterious illnesses, many pet parents maintained that the treats clearly caused problems for their pets.
I sometimes received emails from Petful readers relating heartbreaking stories of pets’ lives taken far too soon. “I want to know what killed my dog, just days after eating these treats,” the pet caretakers would report. Their agonizing stories are all over the Internet. A vital group, Animal Parents Against Pet Treats and Food Made in China, sprang up on Facebook to offer a place where victims and other concerned people could memorialize their pets, find support and share resources.
Sadly, to date nearly 600 dogs and cats (but mostly dogs) have died, and an estimated 4,500 have been sickened, some very seriously. Yet the primary treats that pet caretakers have long suspected were behind the wave of fatalities — including Waggin’ Train and Canyon Creek Ranch brands (both produced by Nestlé Purina PetCare) as well as Milo’s Kitchen (Del Monte Foods) — remained on store shelves for years.
Finally, in mid-January 2013, the hammer finally came down: These 3 treat brands, among some others, were voluntarily recalled by the companies.
“The Product Is Safe”
The voluntary recall last year of jerky treats came about because of “traces” of unapproved (in other words, illegal) antibiotics in the products. The companies said the antibiotics were merely a technicality rather than a safety risk, yet they were recalling the treats anyway simply as a precaution.
Could antibiotics be the cause of all those deaths and illnesses? We don’t know for sure, and some experts have said it’s unlikely. But we do know that various antibiotics are among the known causes of acquired Fanconi syndrome.
What’s important here is that the affected companies have apparently never conceded that their jerky treats might, just might, have been at least a factor in all those deaths and illnesses where the common connection was consumption of said jerky treats. Instead, we’ve had to endure statements like these:
- “This finding does not pose a safety risk to pets.” — Nestlé Purina, Jan. 9, 2013
- “The trace amounts of antibiotic residue do not pose a health risk to pets, and no pet illnesses related to this issue have been reported…. [T]he product is safe.” — Waggin’ Train website, January 2013
- “[We have] a comprehensive safety testing program in place…. There is no known health risk.” — Rob Leibowitz, general manager of Milo’s Kitchen, Jan. 9, 2013
Some veterinarians (but, notably, not the AVMA) began to advise against feeding any jerky treats. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, cautioned Petful readers last fall: “My advice to you is to stay away from treats — jerky treats specifically. Your pets don’t need them.”
Zombie Treats Rise Again
Recently, Nestlé Purina and Del Monte announced that these branded treats will be popping back up on store shelves everywhere. Why? Because “thousands of consumers [were] calling” and demanding their return, at least according to pet food giant Nestlé Purina. Well, that and they were huge money-makers for the companies.
So be on the lookout this month for Waggin’ Train and Canyon Creek Ranch. And this spring, according to Del Monte, you can expect to spot that other zombie, Milo’s Kitchen.
So, has anything changed? According to Nestlé Purina, some really big changes were made to its treats. The most visible difference is all-new (far less cheap-looking) packaging featuring bright blue skies, crisp green grass, happy-looking dogs and the “Purina” name now proudly emblazoned across the front. “Delicious Breasts of Real Chicken,” the packages beckon.
Other changes, according to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
- The manufacturing process has been revamped.
- Now there’s just a single supplier (however, the facility is still in China).
- Testing has been enhanced in consultation with the FDA.
- Waggin’ Train’s lineup has been reduced to just a few products rather than the previous 30. There’s the infamous Chicken Jerky Tenders (made in China), plus Jerky Duos and Smoky Jerky Snacks.
Presumably, another difference is that the treats are antibiotic-free now.
But can we trust them again?
Good Luck With That!
Rebuilding confidence in these treats will be an interesting challenge for the companies, to say the least, considering how much negative publicity has built up over them. Even as the jerky treats rise from the dead, federal lawsuits are still pending, filed on behalf of crestfallen former customers who say the previous incarnations of the treats killed or sickened their pets.
Readers might ask this writer, “Would you feed the ‘new’ Waggin’ Train treats to your own pets?” My answer: Not a chance. But a decision like that, of course, is up to each individual consumer to make.
I want to conclude by returning to what really, and I mean really, bugs me about this whole mess.
I can’t understand how the companies insist with a straight face that nothing was wrong at all with their treats in the first place. I’ll quote Nina Leigh Krueger, president of Waggin’ Train, LLC. She says: “It was always safe to feed.”
That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? The companies have the unflinching attitude that nothing was ever wrong with these products. Not then, when thousands of dogs fell ill after eating the treats, and certainly not now.
So, despite the fancy new packaging, why in the world should we believe them this time around?
What Do You Think?
The companies know they’re stirring up a hornet’s nest with the relaunches. In fact, they’ve been telling reporters that they’re excited to hear some feedback. “We expect there to be a conversation, and we welcome it,” Krueger told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. How very democratic.
As expected, Waggin’ Train’s Facebook page has lit up with negative comments. The moderators certainly seem to be earning their salaries. But is anyone on Facebook actually happy that the treats are making a comeback? Well, sure, a few people — for example, this woman, Cathy Small, sure is excited. Of course she works in the Nestlé Purina marketing department. I don’t think she realizes her employment details are visible to all when you hover over her name.