Need to know
- Rebecca Cleaver's two rescue greyhounds fell ill after eating a tainted batch of Veganpet dry dog food
- The lack of mandatory pet food standards in Australia has been linked to a number of similar incidents
- CHOICE, the pet food industry and the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) are all calling for a mandatory pet food standard – as well as faster recalls and an independent regulator
Rebecca Cleaver was shocked to find out there are no mandatory standards for pet food in Australia, and she found out the hard way.
Rebecca and her partner Loan have two rescue greyhounds, Bertie and Joanie, who were happy, healthy dogs a few months ago, but now need hours of daily hands-on help.
Both were diagnosed with megaesophagus late last year, a disease that enlarges the oesophagus and makes eating and drinking difficult, sometimes so difficult that animals have to be put down. Dogs have to eat in an upright position and often can't consume enough to stay healthy.
Neither Rebecca nor her vet were sure what caused it until a recall notice arrived from the dog food brand the greyhounds eat, Veganpet, saying a batch of its dry dog food had been linked to the disease.
Megaesophagus makes eating and drinking so difficult that sometimes animals have to be put down
Bertie was the first to show signs of being unwell.
"We would wake up in the morning and notice that Bertie was in a puddle of what looked like vomit," Rebecca says.
"Initially the vet said it's probably just an upset stomach, gave us some anti-nausea meds and sent us on our way. We changed her diet, but she just kept vomiting. And then finally we were referred to a specialist and the specialist said it might be this condition called megaesophagus."
Then things got worse.
"Around that time, the same thing started happening to Joanie," Rebecca says." We were just devastated because the prognosis we received for Bertie was poor. Very few dogs recover. Joanie actually seems to have it more severely than Bertie, I think because she was eating the food for longer."
For Rebecca and Loan, the devotion to their greyhounds has taken on a new dimension.
"It's a lifelong condition," Rebecca says. "You have to feed your dog in an upright position from now on. You have to feed them very small meals. You have to experiment with foods of different consistencies to see what they can keep down. You have to keep an eye on their breathing because a lot of these dogs develop pneumonia."
When I think about how healthy they were it just breaks my heart. We had two perfectly healthy dogsRebecca Cleaver
"It just basically took over our whole lives initially," Rebecca says. "It was just a complete nightmare. They were so acutely unwell. Bertie lost a third of her body weight. We thought she was going to die."
Rebecca and her partner now feed the dogs in a special cushioned chair they built (known as a Bailey chair) that allows the dogs to eat sitting upright.
Joanie is fed very small meals four times a day and Bertie twice, with special meatballs that Rebecca and Loan make every day.
"I took time off work and I'm still not back to my normal schedule," Rebecca says. "I would say we probably spend three hours a day just feeding them."
"It's been such a huge change in our lives. We can't go out in the evenings anymore. We can't go out for long periods of time. We always have to be here to be able to feed them regularly. But we just adjusted, I guess, and it kind of became a new normal. But when I think about how healthy they were it just breaks my heart. We had two perfectly healthy dogs."
Rebecca Cleaver with her rescue greyhound Joanie.
Veganpet issues a recall
Veganpet sent out a communication to its customers in October 2020 saying, "We are deeply concerned by reports we have received of dogs being afflicted with megaesophagus."
The communication said "we do not presently have any reason to believe that this multifactorial condition can be caused by our Veganpet dry dog food."
But the company decided to recall the product, "out of an abundance of caution." (The batch number in question is 02026021, printed on the outer foil of 15kg bags. The 1kg package can be identified by an expiry date of 21 July 2021).
Following the recall, Veganpet informed its customers that a batch of its dry dog food consumed by the affected dogs "has indicated abnormally high levels of a mycotoxin, Fumonisin", adding that the mycotoxin is "known to originate as a crop disease and stays in the raw product during the pre and post harvesting process".
Manufacturer to blame says Veganpet
Veganpet said it had contacted the manufacturer of the dog food, WA-based Advanced Pet Care, to ask about the origin of the raw ingredients in the tainted batch. Veganpet also said it was looking for a new manufacturer.
The customer communication also invited affected dog owners to send through documentation of their vet costs, which Veganpet hoped its insurer would pay. Rebecca says one woman she heard from had paid $30,000 so far.
Veganpet has been devastated to receive reports of dogs belonging to its customers falling ill and, in a few cases, dyingVeganpet owner and director Sandy Anderson
A follow-up communication from Veganpet ,on 5 January this year, thanked customers for sending through their vet bills but said its insurer had advised that Advanced Pet Care would be responsible for any compensation.
The manufacturer took a different view.
"Advanced Pet Care is denying everything, and they are being very uncooperative," the communication said. As a result, Veganpet said it had started legal proceedings.
Veganpet director and business owner Sandy Anderson told CHOICE on 9 February that the company "has been devastated to receive reports of dogs belonging to its customers falling ill and, in a few cases, dying."
"Investigations to seek to ascertain the precise cause of these events were and are ongoing," Anderson said, adding "no issues whatsoever have arisen with any other batch."
According to Anderson, the insurance claims were back with Veganpet's insurer.
"Veganpet acknowledges and deeply regrets that some of its customers have suffered financial loss, on top of the trauma of the illnesses of their beloved pets," Anderson said. "It has referred all such customer claims to its insurer and anticipates that those customers will hear from the insurer shortly."
Rebecca says she has heard from the insurer, but the issue was still unresolved at the time of publication.
Bertie in his special feeding chair. known as a Bailey chair.
Advanced Pet Care says there's no link
Advanced Pet Care (APC) general manager Shirlyn Lao told CHOICE the company has been manufacturing products for Veganpet since 2013.
"APC's review of its manufacturing processes confirmed that the recalled product was manufactured in accordance with all relevant manufacturing standards and that its manufacturing processes are not linked to the cases of megaesophagus," Lao says.
"Investigations are ongoing in partnership with the PFIAA [Pet Food Industry Association of Australia] and Australian Veterinary Association since diet-related megaesophagus in dogs is usually multifactorial and the underlying causes are not fully established at this stage," Lao continued. "Currently, there is no veterinary literature that links a single ingredient as a cause of megaesophagus. APC continues to cooperate fully with the investigation."
Advanced Pet Care's manufacturing processes are not linked to the cases of megaesophagusAdvanced Pet Care general manager Shirlyn Lao
Lao says APC will discontinue manufacturing Veganpet dry dog food until "a cause and effect is clear".
APC also says that no legal action has been taken against the company.
While there may be no definitive link to a single ingredient, a study published by the US National Institutes of Health in February 2020 makes the case that the cereals used in dry pet foods are "vectors of harmful mycotoxins posing the risk to pet health", and that even at levels well below the EU regulatory threshold, mycotoxins can pose long-term health risks for pets.
Joanie in her special feeding chair.
Australia lagging on pet food standards
Pet food regulation is handled by government agencies in countries like New Zealand, the US, Japan, Singapore and throughout Europe, with independent regulators making sure the product meets certain standards. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration sets the standards, as it does for human food, and pet food recalls are handled the same way.
That's not the case in Australia, where the pet food standard, 'AS5812 Manufacturing and marketing of pet food' is voluntary and the pet food industry regulates itself. Pet food standards are currently under review, but the jury's still out.
The result of self-regulation appears to be that many pets continue to become seriously ill or die from eating contaminated pet food in Australia.
Since 2017, over 100 cases of megaesophagus have been linked to Advance Dermocare dry dog food, manufactured by Mars Australia. In eight of those cases, the dogs had to be euthanised.
Despite extensive investigations, a root cause of the 2018 outbreak has yet to be foundMars Australia spokesperson
Any doubt that Advanced Dermocare caused the illnesses was put to rest by a University of Melbourne U-Vet Hospital study release in December 2018.
"This is an extremely strong association, there is about a one in a million probability that this occurred by chance, supporting the hypothesis that Advance Dermocare was associated with this outbreak of idiopathic megaesophagus in dogs," U-Vet Hospital Director Caroline Mansfield said at the time.
A spokesperson for Mars Australia told CHOICE that, "despite extensive investigations, a root cause of the 2018 outbreak has yet to be found."
While adherence to the Australian standard is voluntary, the industry's peak body, PFIAA, encourages its members to follow it.
PFIAA estimates that 95% of the pet food sold by volume in Australia is sold by a PFIAA member, yet only 21 of its 64 members has been independently certified to have met the standard. (Advanced Pet Care is a certified member.)
And meeting the standard clearly doesn't guarantee the safety of pets.
The vet costs for dogs suffering from megaesophagus can reach into the tens of thousands.
Not a new problem
Unsafe pet food has been a longstanding issue in Australia, and CHOICE has called for mandatory standards, faster recalls and an independent pet food regulator.
In 2018 we profiled the case of Nina Waltman, whose eight-year-old Maltese Shih Tzu became seriously ill after eating mouldy Royal Canin dog food. (Royal Canin denied any responsibility.)
The incidence of pet food-related deaths and illnesses in Australia is considerable.
Current status of pet food regulation
An October 2018 Senate report, 'Regulatory approaches to ensure the safety of pet food', laid out a strong case for mandatory standards in Australia, recommending that policymakers consider having the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act (FSANZ) cover pet food as well as human food.
It also recommended that the ACCC consider making the voluntary standard mandatory and that the standard be improved.
When the report was released, Minister of Agriculture David Littleproud (whose portfolio includes pet food regulation) said he would review its findings and that recommendations would be made in 2019 "about how to best manage pet food regulation and provide healthy and safe foods for pets in Australia", adding, "I have asked my department to expedite this work."
The report is now being finalised and is expected to be presented to senior agriculture officials by the end of March 2021Minister of Agriculture spokesperson
But progress has been slow.
We asked Littleproud's office for an update and were told the working group on better pet food regulation had met 12 times since it was formed in November 2018.
"Although the summer bushfires of 2019 and 2020 and COVID-19 slowed progress during 2020, the report is now being finalised and is expected to be presented to senior agriculture officials by the end of March 2021, after which it will be provided to state and territory agriculture ministers for their consideration," a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture told CHOICE in early February.
Standard should be mandatory
Major stakeholders in the industry agree the standard should be mandatory and also improved.
Head of policy and advocacy for the AVA, Dr Melanie Latter, told CHOICE that pet food safety is "of significant concern" to the AVA and that it "does not support the current lack of regulation of the Australian pet food industry".
"The AVA has consistently and strongly argued for a mandatory Australian pet food standard and an ongoing process of review and modification with clear guidelines for product recall," Dr Latter says.
The AVA does not support the current lack of regulation of the Australian pet food industryAVA head of policy and advocacy Dr Melanie Latter
She added that the AVA has been informed that pet food will not be included under FSANZ and that the ACCC will not be involved in monitoring toxicity in pet foods, both of which were recommended by the 2018 Senate report.
PFIAA also thinks a mandatory standard is needed.
"Working alongside and aligning with the AVA and RSPCA, the PFIAA continues to advocate for regulation of the pet food industry," says PFIAA president Michelle Lang.
We support the Australian standard becoming mandatory, and a framework that enables the enforcement of recalls by an independent regulatorPFIAA president Michelle Lang
"We support the Australian standard becoming mandatory, and a framework that enables the enforcement of recalls by an independent regulator where quality or safety issues exist," Lang says.
She says the PFIAA is taking it upon itself to update the Australian standard "to align more closely with the Food Standard Code that regulates human food".
'I felt tremendous guilt'
These all sound like good ideas to Rebecca Cleaver, who wasn't aware that no mandatory standards existed when her greyhounds fell ill.
"When my vet first flagged it with me, that it could be linked to food and that they'd had this previous case, I thought how could they let that happen?
How could our dogs be poisoned by the food we're giving them, that we're paying top dollar for?Rebecca Cleaver
And then I felt so much guilt. I remember when I got the recall notice I immediately just went over to Joanie and hugged her and said 'I'm so sorry, I didn't know'.
"You do your best, and you trust that the food you're feeding your dog is going through basic testing," Rebecca says. "And to know that something like this could happen, it just absolutely blew my mind and I felt tremendous guilt, but I also felt that I wanted to help change things and make it better for other dogs."