Costco keeps selling treats from China despite dog death

Costco is under fire from dog lovers for continuing to sell pet jerky treats from China, despite being warned by an owner whose veterinarian believes treats purchased there killed her Yorkshire terrier puppy.

“I am so angry, and I can’t believe Rosie is gone because of this,” said Alda Wirsche of Calgary. “The treats are still on the shelf. No one is listening. They’re not listening.”

Rosie was turning one year old and healthy, according to her vet, until Wirsche bought a large bag of Vitalife Duck Tenders at Costco and gave them to the pup every day for three weeks in March.

“The third week she was lethargic. She started throwing up, peeing a lot and just not herself,” said Wirsche, who took her to the Bow Bottom Veterinary Hospital.

“Her kidneys were shot. They were absolutely destroyed,” said veterinarian Julie Schell, who said she tried everything possible to save the tiny, 1.65 kilogram dog, but her condition was too severe.

“She died in my arms — and I will never forget her. I definitely don’t want any of my other patients to suffer like that and to die, when it could be totally prevented.”

1,000 deaths reported in U.S.

The dog died of renal failure, a common ailment among the 5,600 dogs — including 1,000 that died — whose cases have been reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 2007.

In most, eating duck, chicken or sweet potato jerky from China, sold under numerous brand names, was the suspected cause.

Since 2011, 86 cases, including seven deaths, have also been reported to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association from vets and the Canadian public.

Despite exhaustive testing by the FDA, it is still a mystery what is in the treats or their production that could be causing illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control is now doing a study, hoping to pinpoint the problem.

“It’s like a smouldering fire out there,” said Warren Skippon, national issues and animal welfare manager for the CVMA.

“Because there is a link there and we don’t know what is causing it, to us it would be more prudent for retailers to stop selling these products.”

Schell, the veterinarian, said the dramatic kidney failure Rosie suffered from was the type caused by poisoning. Because the dog was so small, she said, her kidneys became overloaded much quicker than a larger dog’s would.

“Of the dogs that are getting sick and are dying, most of them are very small dogs,” said Schell, who had tested Rosie's kidney function three weeks earlier and found it within normal range.

Schell said she consulted other vets on this case and ruled out explanations for Rosie's death other than eating the jerky treats. They were imported into Canada by Normerica Inc, based in Ontario.

“The proof is in the science. We are now seeing more and more cases like that,” she said.

The pathologist consulted on Rosie’s case said the cause of death can’t be confirmed, but agreed it should be flagged as suspected poisoning from the duck jerky.

Normerica president Colin Gleason sent a statement to Go Public challenging the vet’s conclusions.

“We have reviewed reports provided by the veterinarian … and cannot understand how the connection was made between Rosie’s death and VitaLife treats,” said Gleason.

Schell said she stands by her position.

Labelling questioned

The vet and dog owner also think Vitalife’s packages are misleading, because the smaller bags of Duck Tenders don’t give any indication they are made in China.

The bags have a seal on the front with a maple leaf, stating they are "Quality checked in Canada certified laboratories."

“I did see the seal on the front — it says Canada quality,” said Wirsche. “What does that mean? If that’s Canada quality, then we are in trouble.”

Gleason told Go Public the product is tested in China for several contaminants, before being imported. He said Normerica hired local Chinese staff to oversee quality assurance from the company's China office. In addition, he said, the product testing is done in an independent Chinese lab.

After this story was published by CBC News, Gleason told Go Public that his dog food products from China are also tested by Mortec Scientific Group in Canada.

Vitalife sells several other products made in Canada and Thailand, but the company’s website says its Duck Tenders, Sweet Potato and Duck Twists and Sweet Potato Ridge Cuts are products of China.

Vitalife Duck Tenders are among several types of dog jerky treats imported into Canada from China, sold by various companies, under different brand names.

The concerns from veterinarians and the FDA are about all chicken, duck and sweet potato jerky treats from China, not just those sold under the Vitalife label.

Several other Vitalife products are made in Canada and Thailand and are not among the products of concern.

Go Public asked Gleason why the bags don’t indicate where they are made, but he didn’t answer. He also didn’t explain why the company sources any products in China, given the concerns.

“Myself and all the employees at Vitalife who are pet parents feed Vitalife treats to their pets on a daily basis,” he said.

The Duck Tenders bag reads, “Vitalife all natural dog treats are designed to contain no artificial colours, flavours, preservatives, byproducts or fillers.”

Costco informed

Rosie’s owner Wirsche reported the dog’s death and suspected cause to Costco, but said it did nothing.

“They are intentionally still selling it,” said Wirsche. She said that when she saw the treats on display at the Calgary Costco, she looked around for any customers buying it, planning to warn them.

The retailer sent Wirsche an email, saying Costco is sorry Rosie died, but because the treats are tested, it sees no problem.

“There’s no way Costco can test for something when they don’t know why the dogs are dying from these treats. Even the FDA doesn’t know why they are dying,” said Wirsche. “Costco obviously doesn’t care.”

Go Public found Vitalife and other jerky treats made in China also at Superstore and Wal-Mart. PetSmart is still selling the products too, but said it will remove all Chinese-made treats in 2015.

Smaller retailers like Tisol in Vancouver have already done that.

“We know that our customers trust us with their pet's health and well-being, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” said Tisol.

Not 1st case

Costco’s response to Rosie’s death was upsetting news to Vancouver dog owner Lynn Ross. Her Labradoodle developed pancreatitis after eating a different brand of Chinese-made jerky treats, also bought at Costco.

“He has been on medication ever since,” said Ross.

Costco has since pulled that brand of treats, while Nestlé has settled with affected U.S. dog owners for $6.5 million. Ross can’t understand why Costco would continue to risk problems.

“I nearly killed my dog by giving him these treats. It’s terrible,” said Ross. “You shouldn’t have to wait for the outcome of something to stop selling these treats. It’s crazy to me.”

Another dog owner from Ontario, whose bulldog died from kidney failure after months of eating Vitalife Duck and Sweet Potato Twists, believes all retailers should pull them, now.

“There are no words to describe the horrific shock of being told your dog’s kidneys are failing and then asked by the vet what treats she was given,” said Shelby’s owner Bill Woods of Napanee.

“It shattered my heart into a million pieces knowing I could never take her home again.”

Woods said his local Metro grocery store pulled the Vitalife treats briefly after Shelby died, but they’re back now.

“Unfortunately, it appears that profit trumps our pets’ lives.”

Pet food is not regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The CVMA has lobbied the federal government to stop the import of all pet jerky treats from China, with no success.

“Without them being a regulated commodity, they say they can’t do that until there is a proven link, which is frustrating,” said Skippon of the CVMA.

The veterinary association believes Costco and other retailers are leaving themselves vulnerable to lawsuits.

“There are risks to animal health, there are risks to public health, and there could be legal risks to selling this product,” said Skippon.

Go Public asked Costco several times for a response, but didn’t hear back.

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Clarification : After this story was published by CBC News, Gleason told Go Public that his dog food products from China are also tested by Mortec Scientific Group in Canada. (Jun 09, 2014 2:54 PM)