By Pet Age Staff//February 9, 2024//
By: Pet Age Staff//February 9, 2024//
Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP, a leading law firm in protecting consumers and small businesses against corporate fraud and unfair competition, recently announced it has filed a major class action lawsuit against Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc., a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive Co. and one of the country’s largest manufacturers of grain-containing pet food products, as well as a group of academic veterinarians and organizations with financial ties to the company. According to Thomas Burt, a partner with Wolf Haldenstein, the $2.6 billion damages award sought in the case would be the largest in the history of the United States pet food industry.
The suit, KetoNatural Pet Foods v. Hill’s Pet Nutrition, was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas on February 6. It alleges that Hill’s and the other defendants carried out a coordinated scheme to persuade American pet owners that the grain-free dog food products sold by many Hill’s competitors all increase the risk and severity of a deadly canine heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). The scheme allegedly involved a wide range of malfeasance committed by the defendants, most notably fraudulently misrepresenting case data about DCM to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA spent more than five years conducting a widely publicized investigation into “a potential association” between grain-free dog foods and DCM, only to suspend further investigation updates last year after announcing that it had not found sufficient data to establish a relationship between DCM and the products under investigation.
The suit alleges that the FDA’s DCM investigation was fraudulently induced by Hill’s-affiliated veterinarians at Tufts University and other major research institutions, all of which have received extensive funding from Hill’s-affiliated entities. The veterinarians allegedly caused the FDA to take drastic action by flooding the agency with hundreds of DCM case reports that were intentionally chosen to overrepresent the commonality of grain-free diets among dogs suffering from the disease.
The FDA’s investigation received major media coverage in 2018 and 2019, sparking a panic over DCM that caused the market for grain-free pet foods to drop by billions of dollars. The suit alleges that Hill’s and its co-conspirators then stoked the panic by making false statements about the scientific evidence surrounding DCM, both to the veterinary community and the general public, as well as by manipulating the language of academic papers, using front organizations to hide undisclosed payments to veterinary researchers and creating Facebook groups and websites to amplify misinformation and suppress dissent.
According to the lawsuit, this scheme produced a shocking financial windfall for Hill’s, a company that had been steadily losing market share to grain-free competitors in the years preceding the controversy: In the four years immediately preceding the launch of the FDA’s investigation, Hill’s lost 20 percent of its market share. In the five years since the investigation began it has been arguably the fastest growing pet food company in the country.
According to a Reuters report, the case was filed on behalf of KetoNatural Pet Foods, a Utah-based pet food startup that specializes in manufacturing low-carbohydrate dog food products. KetoNatural is seeking class-action status for at least several hundred companies with combined annual revenues of more than $10 billion. KetoNatural said in the lawsuit that it had “cultivated reams of evidence” from customers who said they stopped buying its dog food over concerns about a purported linkage to DCM.
According to Burt, pet food brands such as KetoNatural are just one of several discrete groups that have been harmed by Hill’s and its co-conspirators. “We know that boutique pet food retailers and pet-owners around the country were also damaged by the false idea that grain-free pet foods increase the risk of canine DCM. As we continue to investigate potential claims against Hill’s and its co-conspirators, we urge anyone who believes they have been harmed by the misconduct described in this suit to contact our offices.”
Hill’s Pet Nutrition responded to a request for comment with the following statement: “Hill’s Pet Nutrition operates with the utmost integrity in all aspects of our business. We believe the allegations are without merit, and we will defend our position vigorously.”