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Pet food maker faces mounting legal woes over dog deaths

8 brands of dog food recalled
8 brands of dog food recalled 00:50

Hill's Pet Nutrition "dragged its feet in issuing a recall" for its canned dog food with potentially toxic levels of vitamin D, leading to the deaths and illnesses of numerous dogs, according to one of multiple lawsuits recently filed against the company.

Hill's manufactured and sold the now-recalled Specialty Dog Food to "tens of thousands of consumers," according to a lawsuit filed early this month in New York. It cited the company's U.S. recall of 675,000 cases -- or 13.5 million cans -- in presenting its case as a class action, filed on behalf of a group of people. 

"We believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of pets have died or become seriously ill as a result of eating Hill's foods with toxic levels of vitamin D," emailed Nyran Rose Rasche, a Chicago-based attorney with Cafferty Clobes Meriwether & Sprengel, which filed the class action. 

The suit is among a handful filed since Hill's late-January recall, which soon found the company awash in complaints from grief-stricken dog owners, many of whom took to social media to relay stories of their pet's demise.

"We have received an outpouring of distressing calls and emails from dog owners whose dogs died after eating the recalled products," emailed Kathryn Schubert, an attorney with Schubert Jonckheer & Kolbe in San Francisco, which has filed two class actions. "Their stories are heartbreaking."

The company's recall of its Specialty Dog Foods canned food followed a slew of earlier recalls for dry dog having elevated levels of vitamin D that began in late December. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration told CBS MoneyWatch in early February that nine companies that have issued recalls for dry food share a common contract manufacturer, and it noted that one brand had cited a "formulation error." The FDA hasn't identified that source, but several companies said the recalled dry food was produced by Sunshine Mills, which issued its own recall in late November. Sunshine Mills hasn't immediately responded to a CBS MoneyWatch request for comment.

The FDA's investigations of these two incidents -- Hill's canned-food recall and nine others involving dry food with excessive vitamin D -- "revealed no connection between the firms' sources of vitamin D," the agency emailed Wednesday.

"Heart broken" over the issue

In its recall, Hill's, which is owned by global consumer products company Colgate-Palmolive, said it had "identified and isolated the supplier error" that involved a specific vitamin mix. It also described itself as "heart broken" over the issue in a message to pet owners posted on its website. "We are not aware of any link to any earlier product recall," a Hill's spokesperson emailed CBS MoneyWatch earlier this month.

Attorneys representing deceased dog owners presented a different view in their legal filings. "In December 2018 several other brands of dog food were recalled due to toxic levels of vitamin D found in those products, and dogs eating Hill's Specialty Dog Foods began dying of vitamin D toxicity well before that," said the New York suit.

"The lethal nature of Hill's Specialty Dog Foods has been compounded by Hill's excessive and unwarranted delay in warning consumers and regulatory agencies of the dangers posed by these products and caused untold numbers of pet owners significant emotional distress and financial loss," noted the court filing, which detailed the cases of three bereaved dog owners. 

"As early as February of 2018, dog owners began to complain that Hill's Specialty Dog Foods were causing their pets to display symptoms consistent with vitamin D poisoning, such as 'daily diarrhea, excessive thirst and constant food begging,'" according to the suit. 

However, Hill's disputes the notion that it delayed warning consumers. A spokesperson emailed CBS MoneyWatch that the company monitors consumer complaints and "saw no trends beginning in February 2018 that would alert us to an issue that any product contained excess vitamin D."

The FDA has received "a number of reports" since Hill's recall and is in the process of verifying the complaints. "It would be premature to release a number until the cases have been vetted to ensure they are all related to recalled product and are indeed cases of vitamin D toxicity," an agency spokesperson emailed Wednesday.

Additional lawsuits

Other suits filed against Hill's this month include a complaint on behalf of a Florida couple who allege their rescue dog, a dachshund named Stella, was poisoned by the high levels of vitamin D in Hill's food and was subsequently euthanized on Jan. 26, just days days before Hill's issued its recall. 

Law firm Schubert Jonckheer & Kolbe also said it filed a class action in San Francisco this month against Hill's for selling dog food containing excessive and dangerous amounts of vitamin D.

Hill's recall extends beyond the U.S. Its recall posted by the FDA states that "impacted products outside the United States will be subject to separate notices on the country-specific website." It advised consumers outside the U.S. to check their own country's Hill's website for more information.

Using information from Hill's websites around the world, eFoodAlert posted a list of recalled products and batch codes, sorted by country, of which at least 26 are outside the U.S. 

According to Food Safety News, recalled products were sold in Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K.

Hill's confirmed some of the recalled product was shipped overseas, noting that the exported cans represented about 20 percent of the total cans affected and that a majority of recalled cans were recovered before reaching consumers.

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