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Officials say 38 Oregon pet deaths could be tied to recall

Story Highlights

• Menu Foods recalled 60 million cans of wet pet food March 16
• 200 plaintiffs added fraud to class-action lawsuit against company
• Toxic chemical traced to a Chinese company; company denies link
From Katy Byron
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Health officials suspect 38 pet deaths in Oregon are related to the nationwide pet food recall, the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association said Wednesday.

Another 66 cases that did not result in death could also be linked to contaminated pet food, according to Dr. Emilio DeBess, Oregon's public health veterinarian. His office emphasized the link is only suspected at this point, and a confirmed case would require more extensive testing.

Pets that consumed food recalled by Menu Foods Inc. and experienced various stages of kidney dysfunction qualify as suspected cases, the veterinary association said.

The Ontario-based company recalled 60 million cans of wet pet food on March 16 after the chemical melamine, which can be toxic in high doses, showed up in federal testing of some of the cat and dog food. (Details on recall)

Menu Foods reported a total of 14 pet deaths to the Food and Drug Administration, the government agency said Wednesday. However, Menu Foods spokeswoman Sarah Tuite told CNN that a total of 16 pet deaths -- one dog and 15 cats -- were connected to the recalled food.

Pet owners allege fraud

Plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Menu Foods related to the recall added fraud to the charges Wednesday, alleging the company may have known as early as December that the product was contaminated, attorneys said.

"We believe Menu Foods made a decision to put short-term corporate interests ahead of the interests of its consumers, and because of that we have thousands of families mourning the loss of their pets, and that shouldn't have happened," said attorney Jay Edelson, who represents the plaintiffs.

Under the new charges, the 200 plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages for emotional distress, Edelson said. He did not specify the dollar amount attached to the damages they're seeking in the lawsuit, which was filed March 20 in the Northern District of Illinois.

Plaintiff Ben DeLong, of Wadsworth, Illinois, said one of his three cats died after eating the recalled pet food, and another is ill.

DeLong claims Menu Foods "knew something was wrong, and they didn't come forward as quickly as they should have."

"Basically, my wife and I, we poisoned our cats without even knowing it," he said.

Menu Foods extended its original recall after hearing reports that vendors had not taken all of the recalled products off store shelves.

But the food is still being sold in stores, according to Dawn Majerczyk, a plaintiff whose cat died six days after eating recalled food.

"There's no notices up in these stores. There is nothing," she said.

Tuite said Menu Foods has no comment on the lawsuit.

Menu Foods has asked its customers to return any recalled pet food to vendors for a refund and has said it intends to destroy the tainted product to ensure it does not reach consumers.

Attorneys on Wednesday said they will seek an injunction against Menu Foods to prevent the company from destroying contaminated products, which could be used as evidence at trial.

Source of contamination

The melamine found in the contaminated products was traced to wheat gluten imported from a Chinese company, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Company Ltd. (Watch how the toxic food was traced to China Video)

The Chinese company distributed the wheat gluten with the help of U.S. nutritional and pharmaceutical chemical importer ChemNutra Inc., a Las Vegas-based company.

On Tuesday, ChemNutra issued a nationwide recall of products containing the tainted wheat gluten. The company said it did not ship any of that wheat gluten to facilities that manufacture food for human consumption.

Also Tuesday, the Chinese company said claims by U.S. officials that its product contained harmful substances were "rumors," and reported that samples of the substance had been sent to labs for testing.

The company, in a written statement, said it "is astonished by recent rumors from the U.S. that melamine and aminopterin, a rat poison, were found in Chinese-produced wheat gluten and traced to our company." The company said it is cooperating with the U.S. investigation, but "the situation, as depicted by these rumors, has never occurred."

The FDA -- which made the claim -- directed inspectors Friday to stop all wheat gluten imports from the company.

The FDA said it has received more than 10,000 consumer complaints.

The list of pet foods affected by the recall expanded earlier this week, with Nestle Purina PetCare Company, Del Monte Pet Products and Hill's Pet Nutrition adding products to the list. The products are marketed under a wide variety of brand names.

A list of the 42 cat food and 53 dog food products involved in the recall are online at link.

CNN's Richard Davis contributed to this report.

Veterinarian Michael Fusco checks Chloe, whose owner brought her in fearing the canine could have been fed tainted pet food.


-- White or colorless crystals used in the production of synthetic resins for plastic tableware and other products.
-- Melamine can cause mild irritation of the eyes, skin, nose and throat in humans.
-- Chemical linked to bladder cancer in male rats. Female rats suffered chronic inflammation of their kidneys.

Sources: OSHA, CDC
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