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Tainted Pet Food Case Nearing Settlement

Tue, 10/14/2008 - 6:20am
Geoff Mulvihill, Associated Press Writer

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. (AP) -- Thousands of pet owners whose dogs and cats died last year after eating contaminated pet food traced to China could be close to a $32 million settlement.

A federal judge in Camden was to hear oral arguments on the final proposal Tuesday. The court also will consider any filed objections.

The settlement allows pet owners to apply for expenses associated with deaths and illnesses, including the costs of veterinarians, time missed from work to care for sick animals, replacement pets, burial expenses and even property damaged because animals got sick.

In addition to the $8 million they had already agreed to pay owners of sickened pets, the pet food companies would put up $24 million for the settlement.

The case began in March 2007, when companies that make or sell pet food -- including Menu Foods Income Fund, which makes dog and cat food under about 90 brand names from its base in Streetsville, Ontario -- agreed to settle lawsuits with pet owners.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration later found that the food contained melamine, a chemical used to make plastics. The chemical was traced to contaminated wheat gluten imported from China.

In April, lawyers for representing plaintiffs and dozens of companies announced they had struck a deal for pet owners in the United States and Canada.

Under the terms, even those who did not keep any receipts for either the pet food or the costs of the pets' illness and death could get up to $900 per animal.

If any money is left after all plaintiffs are paid, it would go to animal-welfare charities.

But the agreement did not include any money for the humans' pain and suffering from injuries to their pets. That has upset some pet owners.

One, Donna Elliott, of Fries, Va., for instance, sent U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman a picture of her late boxer, Abby.

"How do you answer the statement on the claim form, what was the value of your pet?" she asked. "My companion was everything in the world to me."

In one court filing, the parties that struck the settlement explained: "This settlement does not pretend to do what it cannot -- which is to make people fully whole for their incomprehensible losses," the filing said. "The settlement is, however, a reflection of strenuous efforts to secure the maximum economic relief available."

As of Sept. 30, more than 9,500 people in the United States and Canada had made claims, while just over 100 people had preserved their rights to sue separately. Relatively few -- 28 -- had filed objections to the settlement.

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