SAN FRANCISO (CN) – A federal judge on Thursday struck down a class action claiming Nestle Purina’s Beneful dog food killed or sickened thousands of pooches.
Citing lack of evidence to prove the dog food, and not some other factors, caused the pets to get sick, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen granted summary judgment to Nestle Purina Pet Care Company.
“Today’s ruling confirms what millions of pet owners already know – that Beneful is a safe, healthy, and nutritious dog food that millions of dogs enjoy every day,” Nestle Purina spokeswoman Wendy Vlieks said in an email Thursday.
Lead plaintiff Frank Lucido sued the company in February 2015, claiming it failed to adequately test its dog food or disclose the presence of toxins in the chow.
An analysis of 28 samples revealed three types of toxins: propylene glycol; mycotoxins, a fungal mold on grain; and the heavy metals arsenic and lead.
But the level of toxins found in the dog chow did not exceed limits permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Plaintiffs’ expert analyzed 28 of 1,400 dog food samples from incidents of dogs that got ill after eating Beneful. The sampling was limited because not all dog owners had kept the chow.
The expert, animal toxicologist Dr. John Tegzes, claimed the FDA based its dog chow toxin limits only on short-term exposure and did not consider the effects of long-term exposure.
He said studies used to establish FDA tolerance limits were “poorly designed” and tended to look only at the effects on dogs over weeks, rather than years.
While Tegzes could not say definitively that the toxins caused the dogs to get sick, he concluded that chronic exposure to mycotoxins, heavy metals and glycols posed a “significant health risk” to dogs and could adversely affect their health.
Chen rejected that conclusion, finding that Tegzes lacked two key pieces of data to support his finding: the exact level of mycotoxins in the dog food and what specific level of mycotoxins actually poses a safety risk.
Chen also said the expert failed to examine the afflicted dogs’ veterinary records and consider other factors that may have caused them to get sick.
Additionally, Chen found scientific literature cited to support those conclusions insufficient, and that Tegzes himself acknowledged “research is lacking about how these combinations of contaminants affect the health of dogs over the lifespan.”
“Dr. Tegzes’s opinion is not reliable because the scientific literature he invokes is either too speculative or too imprecise,” Chen wrote in his 24-page ruling. “Simply put, Dr. Tegzes cites no epidemiological evidence that long-term exposure to mycotoxins at levels below the limits set by the FDA leads to serious health risks for dogs.”
The judge also rejected Tegzes’ testimony that Nestle Purina failed to adequately test its dog food, finding Tegzes had no specialized knowledge of pet food manufacturing, testing or control procedures to offer such an opinion.
Chen refused to let Tegzes and another expert, veterinarian Dr. Jena Questen, opine about the importance of dog food safety and testing for consumers, finding that neither witness was qualified to testify on “consumer preferences.”
Chen said the plaintiffs’ case ultimately relied on Tegzes’ opinions, and that “because the court finds Dr. Tegzes’ opinions unreliable, plaintiffs’ case has no evidentiary support.”
He granted Nestle Purina’s motion to exclude the expert testimony and its motion for summary judgment, and closed the case.
Chen denied the plaintiffs’ request to submit additional evidence and entered final judgment in favor of Nestle Purina Pet Care.
Vlieks said in the email that her company ranks the health and well-being of pets as its number-one commitment and that its quality control and safety protocols are “the gold standard” for the pet food industry.
“Beneful is made in Purina-owned facilities across the U.S. and ingredients always meet or exceed every federal and state requirement,” Vlieks said. “In a typical 24-hour production, Purina conducts 30,000 quality checks involving ingredient/packaging, receiving, processing and packing. We take these steps to ensure that our consumers and their pets have safe, quality products.”
Nestle Purina Pet Care reported $11.5 billion in sales and $2.4 billion in profit for its global parent company in 2015, making up 7.7 percent of Nestle’s $88.8 billion in revenue last year, according to the firm’s 2015 annual report.
Class attorney Jeffery Cereghino of Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopczynski in San Francisco did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Thursday.