Horse meat from the Northern Territory is being investigated as the cause of 21 pet dog deaths in Victoria amid a worsening scandal which now includes up to 30 Melbourne retailers.

Key points:

  • Twenty one pet dogs have died, and 61 have been hospitalised in Victoria from indospicine poisoning
  • Authorities have confirmed the toxic meat came from a Maffra knackery
  • Northern Territory horses are being investigated as the source of the toxic pet food

Victoria’s two regulators Agriculture Victoria and PrimeSafe, which were first tipped off about the spate of dog deaths linked to pet food in eastern Victoria a month ago, have revealed “horse meat is emerging as the focus of the investigation”. 

Authorities also said the Maffra District Knackery in Gippsland, which has been under investigation since early July, was the “source of indospicine, which caused the recent cluster of liver disease and dog deaths in Victoria”.

The knackery also trades as Backman’s Meats and Backman’s Greyhound Supplies, which has a store in Seaford in Melbourne’s south-east.

Agriculture Victoria issued a state-wide pet food warning on July 16 for “fresh and frozen raw meat sourced from Gippsland and sold between May 31 and July 3.”

A knackery with a sign in front that reads 'Maffra Knackery'

The Maffra District Knackery in Gippsland.(

ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis

)

Tropical plant, NT horses probed

On July 21, authorities identified indospicine as a toxin which killed the dogs.

It is from a tropical and sub-tropical native plant in the Indigofera species, found predominantly in Northern Australia. 

Dogs are especially sensitive to the toxin when they eat meat from animals which have grazed the plant, such as horses and camels.

On Friday, Maffra District Knackery co-owner Karen Backman admitted they processed horses from the Northern Territory.

“On questioning one of our [buying] agents, we were told horses we had purchased had come from a station in the southern Northern Territory,” she said.

Most affected pet owners with dogs which have become sick or have died told the ABC they thought they were buying a beef product sourced from the knackery.

Ms Backman said it was “possible that small traces of every species of animal we process are in our pet foods”, but stood by the integrity of their pet food.

A bowl of pet food on a lawn

Pet food has been the subject of a statewide scare.(

ABC Gippsland: Emma Field

)

Ms Backman said the company had never tested for the toxin as it was unknown to them. 

“We have never heard of it or been informed of the toxin to be in grazing animals. It came as a shock to us,” she said.

“We are dog lovers and feed our products to our dogs.”

She insisted that “all tests we perform, and our practices, are regulated”.

Ms Backman said they did three voluntary recalls, the first of kangaroo meat on July 14 when they contacted delivery customers by phone.

The second voluntary recall of “raw chopped pet food”, understood to be beef, was on July 20 and posted on its Facebook page, and the third was via a press release issued on July 22 for a full product recall

Ms Backman took aim at meat processing regulator PrimeSafe saying it had provided no detail about the investigation “despite us pleading with them for the science on a daily basis”.

A PrimeSafe spokeswoman said it would “not provide commentary of the internal aspects of the investigation”.

Shops caught up in recall

There are fears the number of dogs reported to be affected could rise after up to 30 Melbourne retailers were recently told they may have sold the toxic meat, three weeks after authorities were tipped off.

Dandenong pet food manufacturer EcoPet recalled its raw beef products on July 23, three days after the Maffra District Knackery issued its first public recall and a week after Agriculture Victoria’s warning.

Manny Capones runs the Doghouse Dog Café in Collingwood and is one Melbourne store owner who may have inadvertently sold the toxic raw pet meat under the EcoPet brand.

“It’s just really upsetting, especially going through another COVID lockdown as a small business.”

A man in a store

Manny Capones from Collingwood’s Doghouse Dog Café.(

ABC Melbourne: Christopher Le Page

)

Mr Capones claims that around July 15 he got a call from an EcoPet staff member and asked if the meat he had bought had anything to do with the Gippsland supplier linked to dogs getting sick.

“And they said no,” he said.

He put a post on the business’s Facebook page assuring customers his pet food was safe, only to find out a week later it was being voluntarily recalled.

“It’s not fair. It’s disgusting to be honest,” he said.

A dog and some food

Victorian authorities have put pet owners on alert.(

ABC Gippsland: Emma Field

)

EcoPet director Ross Robinson told the ABC PrimeSafe contacted him on July 15 and asked about his kangaroo meat supplier, which was not sourced from the Gippsland knackery.

However, he confirmed the knackery supplied beef to the business which they repackaged and sold to up to 30 stores.

He said despite a statewide warning on July 16 he was never told directly by regulators to do a voluntary recall until the knackery contacted them on July 20.

“I think we have done everything we can,” he said.

A PrimeSafe spokeswoman said it contacted all the retailers it was aware may have sold the meat between the relevant dates.

Vets want change

A 2018 Senate pet food safety inquiry, called after Victoria Police dogs became ill and another 70 pet dogs were left with an incurable illness from pet food, found the industry lacked regulation with no mandatory recalls or standards.

The Australian Veterinarian Association and Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA) have been lobbying for a single regulator and tighter regulations

A decade ago, the PFIAA added indospicine to a list of banned toxins under its pet food manufacturing standard, which is not compulsory and only followed by association members. 

Dr Vanessa Rhodes tried unsuccessfully to save two greyhounds that ate potentially contaminated meat from another EcoPet retailer in Melbourne’s south-east, according to its owners.

Petfood copntamination Dr Vanessa Rhodes

Veterinarian Vanessa Rhodes treated two greyhounds which died from severe liver damage.(

ABC Melbourne: Christopher Le Page

)

“Their liver failed to the point that [one] actually developed quite severe sustained seizure activity and ultimately was unable to be managed,” she said.

Dr Rhodes said the liver illness was “pretty awful” and, in a largely unregulated market, it was often left to individual vets to put on a “detective cap” and trace the cause of death.

“But often we’re not able to go as far as investigating and actually getting any definitive answers for these patients,” she said.

“Having a little bit more of a system … so that we can identify a problem and prevent further illness and death — I think that’s pretty important.”

Pet’s ‘time to go’

A woman with her pet greyhound which suffered liver damage

Tasha Nippard with her pet greyhound Kay who’s still 8kg underweight after suffering liver failure in May.(

ABC Melbourne: Christopher Le Page

)

Victorians Connor Tuckwell and Tasha Nippard have been nursing their beloved greyhound Kay for weeks after she became acutely unwell at the end of May.

“We were in full preparation for it to be her time to go,” Mr Tuckwell said.

They fed Kay raw meat pet food from a Seaford store owned by the Maffra District Knackery, and when Mr Tuckwell found out food contamination was the likely source of the dog’s illness he was “incredibly angry”.

“I didn’t know how to react, or who to blame, or what to do,” he said.

He said he was frustrated at the ad hoc nature of the voluntary recalls because when he visited the Seaford store last week he did not see any sign of the recall.

“There was not a single sign posted. Then when we talked to the [staff] there they didn’t mention a word about any recall,” Mr Tuckwell said.

A pet greyhound in a vet clinic with a shaved stomach

Greyhound Kay suffered liver toxicity and will be on medication for the rest of her life.(

Supplied: Connor Tuckwell

)

Ms Backman said they “contacted all our customers directly — by phone and via our delivery drivers”, and issued press releases to inform customers of the recall.

But Mr Tuckwell wants some accountability around the issue which cost them about $3,000 in vet bills and a lifetime of medical care for their pet.

“Kay will be on diuretics for the rest of her life, and she’s also [got] a shortened life expectancy due to just suffering liver damage so severely,” he said.

Warning still in place

Victoria’s chief vet Dr Graeme Cooke said the warning still applies as they grapple to contain the pet food crisis which has also hospitalised 61 dogs.

A man in a suit jacket looks at the camera.

Victoria’s chief veterinarian Dr Graeme Cooke has confirmed horse meat is now the focus of the pet food contamination investigation.(

ABC Melbourne: Christian Stella 

)

Agriculture Victoria said all pet meat fitting that description “should be considered at risk of indospicine contamination, due to the blending of pet meats, including products described as beef and kangaroo pet meat”.

If you have a tip contact [email protected]

Pet food crisis deepens with spotlight on NT horse meat, questions over recalls
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