LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. health officials said on Monday they expected the number of pet deaths to increase as they probe the cause of tainted pet food that has already killed at least 10 animals through kidney failure.
Wheat gluten was the likely cause of contamination that prompted a recall last Friday of more than 50 “cuts-and-gravy”-style labels of wet pet food made by Canada-based Menu Foods.
The recalled products represent 1 percent of all the pet food sold in the United States, officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said.
Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, told reporters he expected more pet deaths as the investigation continues.
He said that wheat gluten was the likely cause of contamination, adding that hypothesis might change as other ingredients are tested.
Menu Foods has said the timing of the complaints coincided with the use of an ingredient from a new supplier. Use of that ingredient, which was not named, has been discontinued, it said.
The FDA said it believes it knows who that supplier was, but has not yet confirmed its name.
“We’re trying to find out whether or not that company may have supplied other companies,” Sundlof said.
The recall involves such well-known brand names as Iams, Eukanuba, President’s Choice and Nutro Max Gourmet Classics, produced at Menu Foods’ Emporia, Kansas facility between December 3 and March 6.
Lists of affected brands and other recall details are on www.menufoods.com/recall/.
Health officials were not able to say whether this was the largest-ever recall of pet foods. A recall of products in December 2005 manufactured by Diamond Pet Food involved half of the United states and more than 20 countries, they said.
According to the FDA, Menu Foods received the first of six complaints about kidney failure in pets on February 20.
Seven days later, the company began an internal taste test of its food. A cat in the study exhibited signs of kidney failure and died on March 2.
The FDA said at least seven, and perhaps all, of the 10 deaths, were linked to this tasting trial.
Those trial-related deaths were out of a larger group of between 40 and 50 animals who were fed the product, Sundlof said.
Menu Foods estimates the recall will cost it between C$30 million ($25.6 million) and C$40 million ($34 million).
Units of Menu Foods Income Fund fell up to 45 percent on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Monday before rebounding. The units dropped C$2.48 to C$3.02 before climbing back to C$4.15 at the market close, off C$1.35 or 24.5 percent.
Menu Foods manufactures a number of different pet foods sold under private label and store brands at companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Safeway Inc., and at specialty pet retailers like Petsmart Inc.
The company also makes pet food under contract for national brands like Procter & Gamble’s Iams unit, the Hills Pet Nutrition unit of Colgate-Palmolive and Nestle’s Purina PetCare.
All those companies have said in separate press statements that they had voluntarily pulled all the brands in question.
“(Our) stores have been busy with returns,” said Petsmart spokesman Bruce Richardson. “There are a lot of customers asking when the food is going to be back on the shelves.”
Wachovia analyst John Baumgartner said Del Monte Foods, rival seller of branded food and pet products, could benefit from the news.
Del Monte could see longer-term benefits if consumers avoid the affected labels for an extended period, Baumgartner said.
Investors seemed to shrug off the news, with Procter & Gamble rising 37 cents to close at $61.98 and Colgate-Palmolive rising 28 cents to $65.38. Petsmart closed at $31.01, up 40 cents. Wal-Mart shares closed up 38 cents at $46.59 and shares of Del Monte closed at $11.13, up 11 cents.
Additional reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman and Robert Melnbardis