By Susannah Levine, a freelance writer with 25 years of experience writing and editing for trade publications.
outbreak attributed to Diamond Pet Foods appears to have run its course, resulting in 30,000 tons of recalled pet foods, 22 human contaminations, six hospitalizations, at least one lawsuit, and a body blow to the company's reputation.
Diamond sells products under its own and other brand names, including Kirkland, Costco's private label.
Despite the recalls, Costco has no plans to change suppliers of Kirkland pet foods, said Craig Wilson, Costco's vice president of food safety. "Recalls are part of the food industry," he said. "Diamond has a very good safety record compared to companies that produce food for humans."
Still, Costco is working with Diamond to improve testing protocols. "Every shipment to Costco undergoes microbial verification," which identifies food borne pathogens, Wilson said. That improvement alone, he said, is "huge," and will lead the food industry's safety standards for materials and methods.
Diamond Pet Foods did not respond to requests for comment.
Because salmonella is ubiquitous in mammals and rodents, and is easily transferred between humans and animals, salmonella contaminations occur frequently in food manufacturing, according to University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist Gary Smith.
Complaints filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates pet food but doesn't track animal illnesses, suggest that six pets died and another 50 became ill after eating Diamond-made products.
Keep It Clean
Salmonella spreads through contact with feces and inadequate hand washing," said Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, a veterinarian at the Center for Disease Control. "After more than 30,000 tons of recalled pet food, the outbreak appears to be contained."
An FDA investigation into Diamond Pet Foods found a number of sanitation deficiencies in its plants, including inadequate hand-washing facilities. It also found the company did not take "all reasonable precautions" to ensure the safety of its products.
The FDA's DNA testing made a link between the
salmonella strains in humans with that in the Diamond Pet Foods products.
Ryan Osterholm, an attorney with PritzkerOlsen, P.A. in Minneapolis, said a class-action lawsuit against Diamond is likely. He is representing the father of a one-year-old boy who was hospitalized with salmonella infantis that was
linked to a Diamond Pet Foods product.
"Companies should take this stuff seriously," he said. "When they cut corners and save money or time at the expense of food safety -- it's not worth it. Consumers will react with their pocketbooks."
Managing the Aftermath
Experts pointed to several mitigation methods in a case such as this.
"To mitigate legal and financial exposure in a food contamination, companies should immediately identify all the affected products, which helps keep the scope of the recall accurate and appropriate, said Sarah Brew, a partner at the Minneapolis law firm Faegre Baker Daniels. Brew has defended many salmonella and e-coli cases.
"Manufacturers should clearly communicate to retailers which products are recalled and which aren't," Brew said. "Stores seek credit for returned food, which is very costly for the manufacturer."
Since its initial one-brand recall on April 6, Diamond expanded its recall eight times to include additional products, manufacturing facilities, and corrections to production codes and best-by dates. Currently, the recall affects 17 brands.
The first contamination the FDA found was salmonella infantis at Diamond's Gaston, South Carolina plant, said FDA spokeswoman Laura Alvey. The agency later found a different strain, salmonella Liverpool, at the company's Meta, Mo. plant, prompting an additional recall on May 18.
A lesson learned from the Diamond incident, said Jonathan Cohen, a partner with the law firm Gilbert LLP, is that companies everywhere along the food supply chain must understand that food borne illnesses can affect their business. Gilbert LLP specializes in insurance recovery and litigation.
"If problems arise, they can be very expensive on different fronts: bodily injury claims, recall costs that aren't covered by general liability policies, and business interruptions," Cohen said.
Another hedge against a disastrous contamination, said Brew, is a mock recall. "Companies that perform mock recalls do better during an actual recall."
June 19, 2012
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