Pash and Pebbles went off their food on the last Sunday in June.
The retired greyhounds had been on a fresh meat diet since their racing days – Pash, whose black coat has turned silver in his old age, prefers his meat raw, while Pebbles ate hers cooked. Owner Sue Graham had been feeding them the same food, delivered from the same supplier, for years.
But something was different with this delivery. Shortly after refusing his breakfast, Pash collapsed. Within three weeks, both dogs were dead.
Their deaths have been linked back to meat from a Gippsland knackery that contained a deadly toxin, indospicine, which causes liver disease and death in dogs.
To date, the deaths of at least 21 dogs have been linked back to the same batch of meat processed and sold by the Maffra District Knackery, and at least 40 more have become unwell.
It has reignited a push for Australia to introduce mandatory public standards for pet food – a push that the federal government has resisted, even as the pet food industry, the Australian veterinary association and the RSPCA have called for change.
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‘We thought we were doing the right thing’
Graham received 40kg of chopped meat from Backmans Greyhound Supplies, a retail brand of Maffra District Knackery, every two weeks. She sent 16kg to her son and his housemate to feed their two greyhounds, which have not shown any symptoms, and another portion to a friend, whose dog appears to have recovered.
The rest was fed to her two dogs, and any others that she was fostering for a greyhound adoption agency.
“We all thought we were doing the right thing, feeding our dogs fresh meat,” she says. “Whether it was raw or cooked didn’t seem to make any difference in the end.”
The vet later said Pash showed signs of liver failure, but did not know the cause.
On the morning that he died, the veterinary nurse told Graham she had seen a Facebook post from another vet in Gippsland that said they had a number of dogs with similar symptoms, all linked to a local meat supplier.
“I just thought, oh my God, it’s Backmans,” Graham says.
After Pash died, Pebbles, who had been taken to the vet to be treated for dehydration and initially appeared to recover, had “an awful, awful turn”.
“We made the decision that it wasn’t fair to keep her going through this so we put her to sleep,” she says.
Graham set up a Facebook group to connect with other people who had lost their dogs after eating the toxic meat, and to make sure everyone who was affected had notified the Victorian department of agriculture. All of the dogs had similar symptoms – they went off their food, became dehydrated, and some had fits.
“One of our other members, she lost two of hers within 15 hours – she had a dog that fitted for over half an hour,” she says. “It’s just horrible.”
The Victorian agriculture department says the meat that caused the liver failure came from a shipment that the Maffra knackery says it bought from northern Victoria.
The horses had eaten the indigofera plant, which contains the indospicine toxin. It grows in northern Australia and has been linked to dog deaths in the past, when dogs have eaten the meat from camels or horses from the Northern Territory.
In a joint statement, Agriculture Victoria and the meat and seafood regulator, PrimeSafe, confirmed pet meat processed at the knackery as the source of the toxin, and warned pet owners not to feed their animals any meat processed at the knackery between 31 May and 3 July.
But the regulator says it has not identified any non-compliance by the knackery with the governing laws or the Australian pet food standard.
In a statement on Facebook, the knackery said it was “totally shocked that toxins in animals we were told were originally bred for human consumption could harm dogs”.
It posted a recall notice on 20 July and said it had provided details to the regulator of “station bred horses … which we now understand might have contained the toxin because they had crossed the Victorian border from interstate”.
The knackery said it had since implemented a Victorian animals-only policy and would voluntarily impose stricter quality standards. “Our pet foods are safe,” it said.
Industry supports mandatory pet food standards
Pet food standards in Australia are voluntary. The Australian government has rejected a recommendation from a 2018 Senate committee report that pet food standards be made mandatory and incorporated into consumer law, saying the law is concerned with the safety of humans – not pets.
It also said that making the current Australian standard on pet food mandatory would require legislative change and the creation of a new regulatory body, which would have to be established at a state and territory level.
But it did support the creation of a working group to determine a new regulatory framework for pet food, which is expected to deliver its final report to the department of agriculture next month.
The Senate report’s recommendations were supported by the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA), the RSPCA and the Australian Veterinary Association.
Carolyn Macgill, the executive manager of PFIAA, says her organisation supports the introduction of regulation “so that there are mandatory standards for pet food safety and pet food quality”.
Macgill says the pet food standard should be strengthened to be aligned to the Australian food standards code “so that consumers have an understanding and an awareness of what a label should look like and what the product should contain”.
“At the moment PFIAA members must comply with the standard,” she says. “We want to make sure that whatever changes to the standard apply to every pet food importer and every pet food distributor, not just the members of the PFIAA.”
Pet food brands that are registered with the PFIAA are subject to third-party auditing, and the organisation recommends they use meat that is waste from the human supply chain, rather than pet food-only meat supplied by knackeries.
Knackeries are regulated by state governments and must comply with animal welfare and meat standards codes.
An RSPCA scorecard of abattoirs and knackeries in Australia, released this year, found that the animal welfare and regulatory standards for knackeries varied significantly between states, and there was “little to no transparency around animal welfare standards or auditing of slaughtering establishments, especially in domestic abattoirs and knackeries”.
The RSPCA’s chief scientist and strategy officer, Dr Bidda Jones, says knackeries provide a way to dispose of large animals that may not, because of cost or environmental regulations, be able to be buried on property.
But she said the lack of transparency and clear training standards meant horse owners and farmers relied on word of mouth to ensure the knackery they contacted employed staff who had the necessary skills to humanely kill animals on farm before taking the carcasses away.
“That’s a service there that will always be needed,” she says. “The issue is, who’s going to do it well? And shouldn’t we have standards in place that assure people that if they need someone to come and humanely kill an animal on their property that the person that’s going to come and do that is competent?”
Jones says releasing public reports of knackery audits would also provide greater transparency on the type and source of meat that goes into pet products.
Graham says she no longer trusts any product labelled as pet food – even the brands that cost more than $100 a bag.
“I don’t understand why we don’t make the standards mandatory,” she says. “When you look at the number of pets in Australia, which is in the millions, why is no one protecting them? Do we have to have people going through what our family and lots of other families have gone through and are still going through?
“We need to protect these animals, because they are essentially an extension of our lives.”