In the days following Menu Foods' recall of pet food that was linked to vomiting, lethargy and deaths among animals, some retailers were exhibiting their own symptoms of sluggishness.
Prompted by reports from the Washington-based Food and Drug Administration and various media outlets that retailers were still carrying impacted product more than a week after the recall was initially issued, Streetsville, Ontario-based Menu Foods again urged grocers to pull recalled products.
The FDA could not provide specific examples of retailer negligence.
The promptness of Wal-Mart's response was brought into question after a story about a concerned consumer was published in the Beaufort Gazette, Beaufort, S.C. According to the report, Margaret Trask spent more than $1,000 on Menu Foods-manufactured products at her local Wal-Mart as part of an effort to prevent pets from getting sick.
“We have not been in touch with this consumer, so we are not able to verify that she purchased products that were impacted by the recall,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk. “When we became aware of the recall we immediately sent direction to our stores to remove all impacted product from our shelves. As an additional precautionary measure, we have put a sales restriction on the products so that, should one inadvertently be scanned, a restriction notice will come up for cashiers.”
Wal-Mart's point-of-sale flagging system is managed centrally.
“It is set up here in our main office so that we can put the sales restriction in place immediately on impacted items,” Burk noted.
According to the article, Trask purchased both recalled product as well as Menu Foods items that were not part of the recall. Subsequent to her initial visit, she returned to the store five days after the recall was issued to purchase additional products. At that time store officials were taking Menu Foods items from the shelves and asked her to leave, according to the report.
“There has been confusion by consumers, as Menu Foods supplies other products that were not impacted by this recall,” said Burk. “It could very well be that this customer purchased those items not impacted by the recall. In a move to err on the side of caution, Wal-Mart made the decision to remove all Ol' Roy and Special Kitty pet food manufactured by Menu Foods from our shelves until we feel confident this issue has been resolved.”
Wal-Mart's decision followed the announcement late last month that scientists at the New York State Food Laboratory identified aminopterin as a toxin present in cat food samples from Menu Foods. Aminopterin is used as rat poison in some countries, but it's not approved for such use in the U.S.
Menu Foods products not subject to the manufacturer's recall but removed by Wal-Mart include varieties of its private-label Ol' Roy dog food in 5.5-ounce cans. Other varieties of Wal-Mart's company-brand Ol' Roy and Special Kitty selections are supplied by a different manufacturer.
The retailer is keeping mum on whether it will resume its relationship with Menu Foods or replace the moist food producer with another of its private-label manufacturers.
“We don't discuss our relationship with our suppliers,” Burk said. “Here at Wal-Mart, we simply do not take chances. They'll only return when we're convinced that all the issues have been resolved.”
Meanwhile, Menu Foods, which fielded 200,000 consumer calls in the week following the recall, has become the target of several individual and class-action lawsuits.
Retailers who have not responded promptly to the recall could potentially be held to the same liability, noted Bill Marler, managing partner of the Seattle-based Marler Clark law firm.
“A grocery store could be held responsible for a pet's death or injury if they continued to sell a product they knew or had reason to believe was subject to a recall,” he said. “I could see if maybe a retailer hadn't been alerted by the manufacturer within days of the recall, but I can't imagine that a week later that argument would have much merit. It's hard to imagine that someone in the retail space could not be paying attention to this problem. This story has gotten more press than food safety issues related to human deaths.”
Days after it began pulling recalled products from its shelves, Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets made the decision to temporarily stop merchandising all products manufactured by Menu Foods, according to Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous. She related that the decision was made prior to the discovery of rat poison in samples of cat food.
“Out of an abundance of precaution, Publix pulled all canned pet food that is manufactured by Menu Foods off of our shelves,” she said. “Our private-label dry pet food and cat food has not been pulled off the shelf, since it is manufactured by a different supplier.”
Publix brand cuts-and-gravy-style dog food were produced by Menu Foods. Publix's private-label cat food is produced by a different manufacturer.
“The severity of a recall determines our response,” noted Brous. She explained that this recall earned a Level One severity ranking since it involved product with the potential to cause harm or illness.
“We issued an alert to the stores advising them of the recall and told them to remove all affected product from the shelf,” Brous said. “We monitor the store responses, as they need to respond when the action requested is complete. We also communicate with our stores as the information is updated, so that they can effectively communicate with our customers.”
Publix hasn't made any decisions about whether or not it will do business with Menu Foods in the future.
“We are still trying to understand the magnitude and effects of the recall,” Brous said. “It is too premature to discuss our next steps, such as when and if the supplies will make their way back to our shelves or if we will seek an additional supplier.”
Retailers who discontinue their relationship with Menu Foods may run into a few sourcing challenges, noted Bob Vetere, president of the Greenwich, Conn.-based American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
“There are other producers out there, but I don't know that they'd be able to create the same blend as Menu Foods, since theirs is an exclusive,” he said. “Similar types of high-end, human-mimicking moist pet food are being produced by smaller manufacturers. They may not be as price-competitive, but retailers could find them.”
Kroger Co., Cincinnati, also cut back on the pet foods it once merchandised following the detection of aminopterin in Menu Foods cat food.
“We absolutely have removed Menu Foods products from our shelves,” said Lynn Marmer, spokeswoman for the retailer. “When we have a recall we put a ‘block sale’ code into our point-of-sale system, so if for any reason product was missed, it is stopped at the front.”
While programming its systems with this code to accommodate for the expanded recall, the retailer inadvertently disrupted computer systems at several locations, prompting several hours of store closure.
“We're very confident that the computer problem was fixed and the Menu Foods products are off the shelves,” said Marmer.