MORE than 160 “potential toxic agents” are being tested as part of an investigation into whether dog food made by Wodonga company Mars is linked to more than 100 dogs falling ill and 18 dying.
The detail was disclosed during a grilling of representatives of the pet food giant at a Senate inquiry hearing in Sydney this week.
Mars Petcare’s general manager Barry O’Sullivan and scientific and regulatory affairs director Roger Bektash gave evidence as part of an inquiry which is examining pet food safety and regulation in Australia.
The company’s dry dog food product Advance Dermocare was voluntarily recalled in March after it was found it had been consumed by dogs that died or were left with life-long ill-health due to a condition known as megaoesophagus which affects digestion.
Mr O’Sullivan told the senators he was disappointed testing was yet to uncover the root cause of the disease.
“We know pet owners are frustrated at how long this is taking,” he said.
“I can tell you it deeply saddens and frustrates me personally that I’m sitting here today in front of you without an answer – what is the root cause, what happened here.”
Dr Bektash stressed Mars’ efforts.
“Our global advisers have listed 160 different potential toxic agents,” he said.
“We’ve gone to all the best labs in the world who can test for those things, so that’s what’s currently under way.
“It’s taking frustratingly a lot longer than what we expected to test these samples.
“We are committed to being open and transparent about those results, we want to share those results and publish those results.”
Mr O’Sullivan said there had only been one confirmed example of megaoesophagus being caused by pet food, rather than other factors, and that was in Latvia.
He said Mars supported standards in the pet food industry becoming mandatory rather than voluntary, independent audits and granting the agriculture minister the power to mandate a recall of a product.
Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan advised the Mars pair that the pet food industry needed a better resourced industry organisation.
“To run a peak body for a $3.4 billion industry that has got a half a person, that’s just never going to work for you,” Senator O’Sullivan said.
“I think you all need to contemplate seriously (a new body) and it needs to restore faith through transparency with the consumer market, otherwise you’re going to pay a price a lot more.”
Jodi Burnett, who lives on a property at Boweya north of Wangaratta, has to watch her rottweiler eat standing up following his diagnosis with megaoesophagus.
The incurable disease means Titan’s oesophagus is enlarged, resulting in him facing a lifetime of trouble digesting food.
“Titan’s meal is now the equivalent of mush; a canine version of soggy Weet-Bix,” Ms Burnett revealed.
“He has his dry dog food soaked in hot water until it is mushy, and then he has another source of protein added to it that he can manage, such as mince meat, mashed sardines, or egg.”
The origin of Titan’s troubles is alleged to be Advance Dermocare, a dry dog food made by Mars, which he first ate in February last year.
🐱Dodgy pet food brands could be making our cats and dogs sick 🐶 After a number of products have been linked to death and life-threatening illness, a Senate Inquiry into the pet food safety is now on. Make sure the Government fixes this industry for good: https://t.co/33MIDR3LRkpic.twitter.com/v8BEe35R5E— CHOICE (@choiceaustralia) July 3, 2018
In March this year, Mars voluntarily recalled the product after it was linked to the deaths of police dogs and pet canines.
Concerns about the megaoesophagus outbreak and the pet food industry’s handling of the matter has prompted a Senate committee inquiry into the sector’s safety processes.
Ms Burnett this week testified before three senators, telling them of Titan’s plight.
She said she first noticed in January that Titan was regurgitating his food once every two to three weeks.
“I wasn’t concerned, he’s a rottweiler he eats like a shark, I just figured he was gutsing his food too quickly,” Ms Burnett told the sentators.
“When the recall came out on the Saturday night I saw it on the news I was completely shocked but felt that we dodged a bullet because both of our dogs that had been fed Advance Dermocare in my eyes didn’t seem to be affected.
“A week and a half later Titan’s vomiting every couple of weeks became every two days, every one day four or five times a day.
“I then started to panic that he did have megaoesophagus and I took him to my vet and basically said ‘my dog has eaten Advance Dermocare, I believe he has megaoesophagus’ and the vet suggested that it would have been more likely to be a blockage in his digestive tract so we had his entire digestive tract X-rayed to rule out any blockages.”
After further testing in Melbourne in April it was confirmed Titan had megaoesophagus.
Ms Burnett told The Border Mail that she had been offered a settlement by Mars that included paying for a puppy of the same breed and equivalent dollar value if her dog died.
The deal did not include any payment, but Ms Burnett said if she agreed to it she would have to abide by a confidentiality clause which she found objectionable.
“I’m not going to sign a gag clause when somebody is trying to shut me up, when I’m trying to make changes in the pet food industry,” she said.
“I’m not going to take their hush money.”
Mr O’Sullivan defended his company’s confidentiality measure.
“We have offered to reimburse all vet bills for the diagnosis and ongoing treatment of megaoesophagus for the owners affected; signing a deed of release is a standard practice when finalising an issue between a company and consumer,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
“We're encouraging affected pet owners to seek legal advice to make the best decision that is right for them.”
Ms Burnett told the senators industry standards needed to be tougher.
“What is the point of having standards if you don’t have to follow them?” she said.
“It’s like saying ‘we have road rules, but it’s up to you if you follow them’.”
The politicians heard a call to the company’s customer call centre on December 28 last year alerted Mars to a potential problem with their food.
Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan questioned why there was such a gap from the initial report in December to the recall in March.
He compared the situation to what may have happened if a Mars bar had caused a serious health problem.
“I’m assuming that Mars wouldn’t sit there and wait for three or four months until it got another complaint or indeed 46 more complaints before your dynamic strategy to respond to this kicked in,” Senator O’Sullivan said.
Mr O’Sullivan said facts were still unclear on December 28 and Victoria Police, whose dogs were sick, did not originally suspect food.
“I can tell you the recall process is no different from human food to pet food,” he said.
Mr O’Sullivan said he felt great empathy for affected dog owners.
“I feed Lola, my kelpie, on Advance,” he said.
“I feel for those who have lost a beloved family pet or are living with the day-to-day burden of this condition.”
Mr O’Sullivan said he was willing to speaking to those suffering and invited them to inspect the Bathurst factory where Advance Dermocare is made and speak to staff.
Ms Burnett, who was in the room as Mr O’Sullivan gave evidence, does not see value in eyeing the production process.
“It doesn’t matter how clean their factories are or what their processes are, as a layperson that doesn’t help me make an assessment of their product,” she said.
Ms Burnett said Mr O’Sullivan approached her before his evidence, but she did not want to talk, stressing her feelings towards Mars were “pretty raw” and in the “middle of a Senate inquiry it wasn’t the time or the place”.
She plans to take Mr O’Sullivan up on his offer and speak to him in the next two weeks.
Ms Burnett was one of only three dog owners to testify at the inquiry, which received 144 submissions with the bulk from individuals.
She testified alongside Sydney’s Rach Dola and Melbourne’s Christine Fry, whose dogs died after being diagnosed with megaoesaphagus following consumption of Advance Dermocare.
The trio told the hearing it needed to be easier for consumers to find out about illnesses involving pet food and regulations needed to be more stringent.
They believe the Pet Food Adverse Event System of Tracking, known as PetFAST, failed in its role of tracking cat and dog health problems in the Mars case.
Ms Burnett said if it worked “I wouldn’t be here today, Rach wouldn’t be here today and neither would Christine”.
PetFAST is a project of the Australian Veterinary Association and the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia.
Dr Bektash said Mars backed change.
“The pain and suffering that’s happened to pets, pet owners and to our business it should not be in vein,” he told senators.
“We want to see action, we want to see regulatory oversight that ensures compliance with this Australian Standard which is world’s best practice.
“What we need is your help to ensure that we get...an appropriate regulatory regime around pet food, something similar to human food.”
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