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Grieving pet owners take jerky treat fight to the stores

Rita Desollar

Rita Desollar of Pekin, Ill., has launched a petition calling for retail stores to stop selling chicken jerky pet treats from China. She believes her 8-year-old dog, Heidi, died in May after eating tainted treats.

Rita Desollar’s black minivan has become a rolling warning about the possible dangers of chicken jerky pet treats from China.

Everywhere the 57-year-old Pekin, Ill., woman goes, her car carries a poster detailing the May death of her 8-year-old German shepherd, Heidi.

Desollar says she gave the dog two pieces of Waggin’ Train chicken jerky tenders on a Wednesday and by the next Monday, Heidi was dead.

“I didn't know what it was. I just couldn’t figure out what made her so sick,” said Desollar, who turned to the computer for answers. "It was breathtaking what came up."

Desollar found dozens of news stories and blog accounts detailing government cautions about possible links between Chinese-made chicken jerky treats and illnesses and deaths in hundreds of U.S. dogs.

Manufacturers have issued no recalls for the products and Food and Drug Administration officials say repeated testing and investigation has revealed no contaminants that would lead the agency to advise pulling the treats.

But Desollar said she never saw any warnings and didn’t know about a potential problem -- until it was too late.

Outraged, the retired paralegal said she had no choice but to take matters into her own hands.

“They’re leaving a product on the shelf that can potentially harm a dog. There was no warning. There was nothing to tell me this was under investigation. They just left it out there.”

She launched a Change.org petition Sept. 5 calling for stores to pull the products voluntarily; since then it has gathered more than 60,000 signatures. She stuck the fliers on her car and ordered magnets that say “Stop the Cycle of Death,” along with hundreds of business cards that say “Beware... Chicken Duck and Sweet Potato JERKY TREATS are not safe!” 

“I leave the cards on the shelves by the dangerous treats everywhere I see them,” she said. “I have distributed over 1,500 of these cards to date and I have another order of 1,000 on the way.”

Desollar is not alone. Across the U.S., some pet owners -- frustrated by what they say is a lack of government or industry action to get dangerous treats off the market --  have started warning others themselves.

Retailers, pet treat manufacturers and FDA officials all say that there’s no confirmed connection between the Chinese-made jerky treats and pet harm, despite reports of at least 2,200 illnesses and deaths of 360 dogs and 1 cat blamed on the products since 2007.

“This is a very complex public health investigation,” the FDA’s Steven Solomon, a veterinarian and deputy associate commissioner of compliance policy, told NBC News this week. “The tests have not demonstrated significant toxicants.”

Another FDA official, Tracy DuVernoy of the agency’s Coordinated Response and Evaluation Network, told a gathering of veterinarians this summer that the complaints should be put in perspective.

“Two thousand complaints since 2007 is an incredibly small subset of the 15 million animals estimated to consume these treats,” she said, according to an account of the American Veterinary Medical Association conference. “Therefore, it seems that this may very well be some sort of intermittent issue, or it might just be an idiosyncratic reaction within that individual animal.”

Officials with Nestle Purina PetCare Co., which sells the popular Waggin’ Train and Canyon Creek brands of treats, have repeatedly said that internal testing has found no problems with their product and that the treats are safe to feed as directed.

But that hasn’t stopped consumers like Susan Nichols, 64, of Grand Blanc, Mich. She believes that jerky treats caused kidney failure in her 11-year-old Cocker spaniel-dachshund mix, Lucy, last year. So she printed up fliers that she surreptitiously leaves in stores where the products are sold.

“If I’m in Walmart or wherever, I will take my little Scotch tape out of my purse and tape it there,” she said. “It’s just a little thing I do. I’ll just slap one up.”

Jeff Zolman

Jeff Zolman, 42, of Aurora, Colo., said his 9-year-old dog, Bandit, died after eating chicken jerky treats. He asked to put up fliers at a local store, but was turned down.

In Aurora, Colo., Jeff Zolman, 42, was so distraught about the death of his 9-year-old dog, Bandit, that he, too, made posters with the dog’s picture and headed to the Big Lots store where he bought the treats he believes led to her death.

“The manager said he couldn’t post anything up unless it came from corporate,” said Zolman. “I understand where he’s coming from, but I wanted to get it out there for other people.”

Despite such consumer passion, retailers across the country have resisted calls to remove the pet treats from commerce, saying they need more than anecdotal reports to justify the action.

“We’re really sticking with the science at this point,” said Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety and quality assurance at Costco, one of seven stores specifically targeted in Desollar’s petition.

The chain is known for its aggressive food safety monitoring system, which includes stringent tests on jerky treats, Wilson said. So far, repeated examinations have revealed no contaminants that can be linked to reports of animal illness, including kidney failure and Fanconi syndrome.

“I don’t think people understand how hard Costco looks at this,” he said. “If there’s a hole in this boat, I’d like to be the guy who finds it.”

The other stores named in Desollar’s petition include Walmart, Sam’s Club, Target, Safeway, Kroger and Walgreens.

An official with Target noted that the jerky treats are the subject of ongoing lawsuits and said the company could not respond. Several consumers have sued the manufacturers and sellers of the jerky treats in lawsuits filed from California to Connecticut.

Officials with Kroger and Walgreens said those stores abide by FDA guidance on the jerky treat issue. 

"If the FDA determines that these or any products are potentially unsafe, they would contact us and we would immediately pull the product," Kroger spokesman Keith Dailey said in an email to NBC News.

Dianna Gee, a spokeswoman for Walmart, added that in addition to FDA standards, that firm requires pet treats to meet requirements of the Global Food Safety Initiative. She said the firm was not aware that any consumers had left behind fliers or cards protesting the treats, but she said shoppers with questions about the products should consult the manufacturers, the FDA or a Walmart manager. 

Officials with Safeway did not respond to NBC News phone calls and emails.

One store not named in the latest petition, PetSmart, said in a statement that the firm is monitoring FDA and manufacturer guidance. “At this time, we have no immediate plans to remove product from shelves," they said.

The efforts of Desollar and others may pay off, said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for the group Food & Water Watch.

“Consumer pressure can be instrumental in getting these treats out of the marketplace,” he said.

“The easiest way to get them out of commerce is for FDA to issue an import alert against these products.”

For their part, FDA officials said they’re continuing to investigate the production processes at the Chinese plants that make chicken jerky and other types of jerky products. A small number of complaints also have cited duck and yam jerky treats.  

Inspections of five Chinese plants in April yielded valuable information that has led to increased surveillance, said Solomon. Next month, FDA inspectors will visit Chinese plants that irradiate finished jerky treat products to investigate whether that process is tied to the reports of illness and death. Officials are also examining the sources of glycerin used by the Chinese manufacturers to make the treats.

Desollar is glad that the government is continuing to look into the problem. But she said she’ll continue to take personal action to warn fellow pet owners about the possible danger.

“The FDA is a huge government office,” she said. “Purina is a huge corporation. I can’t walk into the FDA and say, ‘Do something.’ But I can walk into Kroger and say, ‘These treats killed my dog.’”

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