Dog food linked to pet deaths

LAWRENCEVILLE - Diamond Pet Foods will pay damages to pet owners whose dogs became sick or died after eating contaminated food, the company said Wednesday.

The offer comes as Meta, Mo.-based Diamond recalls certain dog food made at its Gaston, S.C., plant. The corn-based products in the dog food contained a toxin that, once ingested, caused severe internal bleeding and death.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday said it was investigating the case but could not comment.

At least one dog in Gwinnett may have died from eating the food.

Denise Newlon bought the product from Honey Do Hardware in Dacula. Panda, her 11-year Australian Shepherd, died Dec. 3.

"I wrapped her in a towel and took her to the emergency vet," said Newlon, a Gwinnett Daily Post employee. "They ran blood tests on her and said she was poisoned."

Newlon's other dogs also became ill after eating the food, she said. So far she has paid $800 in vet bills. She wants Diamond Pet Foods to pick up the tab.

"East of the Mississippi, pets are dying," Newlon said. "I haven't been able to get a hold of anyone (from Diamond Pet Food). I can't bring (Panda) back, but I want everyone to know the company is not forthcoming with information."

The company has set up a call center to verify how many dogs were poisoned and to arrange financial compensation for pet owners, said Diamond's general manager, Mark Brinkmann.

"We are a family owned company that has been in business for some 35 years," Brinkmann said. "We got where we are today by hard work and customer service, and we are going to continue doing right by our customers as we try to get through this."

Brinkmann said Diamond is sorting through numerous calls from pet owners to establish a bona fide link between the contaminated food and sickened pets. He was unsure how many dogs have died in Georgia and elsewhere.

The company is facing questions about whether it acted fast enough to limit exposure to the products, which contained a fungus that grows on corn.

The first cases of poisoning appear to have surfaced Dec. 16, Brinkmann said. That night the company got a call from a Rochester, N.Y., veterinarian describing dogs suffering from a liver disorder and asked Diamond if it had any problems in its manufacturing plants.

The company began calling Rochester-area distributors that night and by Dec. 19 told all distributors to put a hold on all corn-containing products, Brinkmann said.

The following day the company issued the recall by posting a notice on its Web site, calling and faxing distributors and sending at least 2,500 certified letters to retailers without fax machines.

Diamond Pet Food distributors also sent recall letters with their sales people and truck drivers Dec. 20 to get word to the hundreds of retail locations that sold the products.

"We did everything we could as fast as we could," Brinkmann said.

Diamond is investigating how the contaminated dog food made its way into production, but Brinkmann said it probably resulted from "human error."

The company purchased new equipment earlier this year to detect the fungus, which most often appears on corn grown in extremely dry conditions followed by the sudden onset of damp weather.

Diamond uses corn grown in South Carolina, Brinkmann said.

For more information on the recall, visit www.diamondpet.com or call the Diamond Customer Information Center at 1-866-214-6945.

- Staff Writer Leslie Wiggins contributed to this story.