Retired real estate developer Don Earl wasn’t interested in playing detective when his cat, Chuckles, died in December of sudden and mysterious kidney failure.
Earl, a resident of Port Townsend, Wash., said he suspected he knew what happened to his 6-year-old orange-and-white longhair when he heard reports of thousands of similar dog and cat illnesses last winter and the recall of tens of millions of containers of pet food.
But his cat’s food never made the list. Earl called the Food and Drug Administration, offering to send officials unopened samples of the food for testing, but he said they declined.
So Earl, like scores of pet owners determined to safeguard their animals or explain their pets’ demise, took matters into his own hands and found a private lab to conduct tests at his own expense.
“If anything comes out of this, it’s going to be through the efforts of people like me doing the research and testing on their own,” Earl said.
“We’re over three months into this thing and private citizens are finding evidence that no one else is even bothering to look for. And that’s beyond unacceptable.”
FDA officials and other experts, however, don’t recommend the path taken by Earl, saying that consumers don’t have the means to determine whether a lab is reliable.
Dr. Robert Poppenga, a professor of veterinary diagnostic toxicology at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, suggested that pet owners first contact their veterinarian if they suspect poisoned food. A pet’s doctor can then determine whether to have food tested and how best to interpret a lab’s findings, he said.
FDA spokeswoman Julie Zawisza seconded that recommendation but said consumers could also contact the agency to report a suspected problem. In some circumstances, the FDA will arrange to pick up a sample of the food for further testing.
Zawisza said she didn’t know why investigators declined to take Earl’s sample. The agency, she said, has picked up samples from consumers throughout the pet food crisis, which began with the March 16 recall of 60 million containers of dog and cat food manufactured by Menu Foods Income Fund of Canada.
Earl sent his samples to ExperTox Inc. of Deer Park, Texas, which said it found traces of the pain medication acetaminophen in several pet food samples, including Pet Pride Turkey and Giblets Dinner made by Menu Foods, which was one of the products Earl fed Chuckles.
Menu Foods disputed ExperTox’s findings, however, and said FDA tests were negative.
Zawisza could not confirm that the agency tested Pet Pride food, but she said it had obtained at least five samples of food that consumers believed had been tainted with the pain reliever, and that each tested negative.
In addition, the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab at UC Davis tested a different sample of the same product that Earl submitted to ExperTox and also did not find acetaminophen, Poppenga said.
“There’s no evidence of a widespread problem,” Poppenga said. “A lot of people are getting worked up about something that may not be real.”
Try telling that to Earl and other pet owners whose animals got sick or died for reasons still unexplained. Their pets’ foods were not included among the thousands of varieties recalled because of melamine-tainted ingredients imported from China.
Earl began his quest shortly after the recall was announced, before the FDA identified the toxic chemicals making animals sick. Without knowing what specific chemicals to look for, Earl paid an Oregon lab $400 for a broad test of a variety of common toxic chemicals -- not including melamine -- and the results were negative.
Those results didn’t stop him any more than the findings at UC Davis.
“I’m looking for a third lab to see if they can duplicate the ExperTox results,” Earl said. “The FDA didn’t want to do testing.... After each recall, they’d say everything else was safe, until the next week when they came out with another recall. After a certain point, you stop believing them.”
That could be the crux of the issue: some pet owners’ unwillingness to trust the government to get to the bottom of the issue.
“This situation with pet food has been unlike anything else we’ve ever seen in recent memory in terms of the volume of complaints, the intensity of people’s reactions and concern about beloved pets,” said the FDA’s Zawisza.
“From the side of a consumer, you want to know right now, is this pet food safe for my pet?” she added. “I can imagine why people would say, ‘I’m going to take things into my own hands,’ and not wait for the government.”
Since Earl launched a website three weeks ago devoted to the issue, which posted several pet owners’ ExperTox lab results, he’s gotten 10,000 hits, he said.
Sharon Kotwitz, a 61-year-old administrative assistant in Plano, Texas, said she engaged ExperTox after reading about other pet owners’ experience with the lab and deciding that private testing was the only way to get answers.
Although her 12-year-old black cat, Pete, had to be euthanized after succumbing suddenly to kidney failure -- the same symptoms suffered by the animals who ate foods on the FDA recall list.
But when ExperTox tested her pet’s food, it found acetaminophen and cyanuric acid. The pet food maker did not return calls for comment.
“I don’t want any reimbursement or whatever; I just wanted it to come to light for other people who have lost pets,” Kotwitz said.
Poppenga said the UC Davis lab had fielded hundreds of calls from members of the public seeking tests of their pets’ food. Not even the nationwide E. coli-tainted spinach scare last year prompted that kind of interest, he said.
Although the lab generally works through vets, it did agree to take a few cases from members of the public because of the high demand, Poppenga said.
The lab has tested about 650 samples for melamine and cyanuric acid, the two contaminants at the center of the tainted pet food scandal -- the majority of which were submitted by vets, Poppenga said. Of those, 35% to 40% tested positive for one or both of the compounds, he said.
The UC Davis lab is subsidized by the state, so tests for melamine and cyanuric acid cost California residents $100; those out of state pay $200. Checks for additional chemicals have additional fees.
ExperTox, which mostly works for individuals, companies and crime labs testing human tissue and fluids for alcohol, drugs and toxic chemicals, said it had tested 100 to 150 pet food samples. About 70% of those were requested by individual pet owners, the company said.
In all, about five or six came up positive for acetaminophen, said Donna Coneley, the company’s lab operations manager. She declined to identify the brands, citing client confidentiality.
An ExperTox test for a wide array of chemicals costs $200, with an additional $100 charge to determine how much of a particular chemical is in the product.