A proposed class action alleges Rachel Ray Nutrish-brand Zero Grain dog food is harmful to dogs in that the product is deficient of taurine and contains legume-based protein, a combination linked to a potentially fatal heart condition when used in grain-free foods.
The plaintiff, a Los Angeles resident, claims consumers would not have bought the premium-priced dog food, sometimes paying up to double what competitors charge for similar products, absent the defendants’ “deceptive and misleading” representations.
“In other words, Plaintiff and the Class were actually paying more for less healthy foods,” the lawsuit says.
Safe for dogs?
According to the 34-page suit, the defendants—Ainsworth Pet Nutrition LLC (Rachel Ray Nutrish) and parent group the J.M. Smucker Company—advertise and market Nutrish Zero Grain dog food as “wholesome,” “high-quality” and “safe.” For example, the companies claim Nutrish Zero Grain dog food offers “100% complete & balanced nutrition for dogs” and is made with “only the best, high-quality, carefully chosen ingredients,” the case says.
As the lawsuit tells it, however, an undisclosed danger of the defendants’ Zero Grain dog food is that the product contains roughly 26 percent crude protein that is a mixture of animal- and legume-based protein. According to the complaint, the “26 percent” figure does not distinguish between animal- and legume-based protein even though the latter, i.e. lentil flour, is not a natural part of a dog’s diet and has been associated with canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) when used in grain-free foods.
Further, the lawsuit alleges Nutrish Zero Grain dog food lacks taurine, an amino acid the defendants know is necessary to maintain dogs’ health. In 2010, the complaint explains, the Pet Food Institute, of which Ainsworth Nutrition is a member, petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to acknowledge the need to add taurine to dog food in order to best maintain dogs’ health.
According to the case, an FDA investigation into the health effects of grain-free dog food named Nutrish Zero Grain as one product linked to a spike in DCM cases nationwide. Nevertheless, the defendants have for years marketed Nutrish Zero Grain dog food on “bogus nutrition credentials” despite being aware the product was never fortified with the health-critical ingredient, the complaint alleges, describing a broader pattern of manufacturers attempting to “cash in” on consumers’ preference for pet foods that purport to offer complete nutritional and dietary profiles.
In all, the plaintiff alleges Rachel Ray Nutrish and the J.M. Smucker Company have “deceived the public” into buying the following Zero Grain dog foods—over similar products such as those made by Purina and Pedigree—while neither disclosing the food’s lack of taurine nor mentioning the spike in DCM cases linked to the food:
Zero Grain Beef, Potato & Bison Recipe;
Zero Grain Turkey & Potato Recipe;
Zero Grain Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe; and
Zero Grain Chicken & Sweet Potato Recipe.
The suit points out that a government study referenced in the Pet Food Institute’s petition averred that “[i]n dogs, adequate levels of taurine are required to prevent dilated cardiomyopathy.” As such, the fact that Nutrish Zero Grain food is devoid of an ingredient the defendants themselves have recognized as necessary to maintain good dog health is material to consumers, the complaint asserts, adding that the companies’ marketing claims are “facially deceptive and misleading.”
Further, the complaint emphasizes the “irony” in that “mainstream brands” such as Purina and Pedigree are not linked to DCM even though their grain-free products similarly lack taurine. Upon information and belief, the additional legume-based protein content, as found in Nutrish Zero Grain food, is “partially responsible” for the nutritional imbalance in grain-free foods that requires taurine fortification, the lawsuit says.
The plaintiff summarily alleges everything about the defendants’ marketing and advertising of Nutrish Zero Grain dog food—from the graphic design of the products’ packaging to the language used by the companies in touting the foods’ apparent wholesomeness to claims made online backing the product as providing complete and superior nutrition for dogs—is materially deceptive to pet owners.
From the complaint:
Most dog owners are deeply passionate about the wellbeing of their dogs, which allowed Defendants to capitalize on these owners' good intentions by upselling them on a claimed premium and healthy dog food. Defendants made unsupported and intentionally misleading statements such as ‘100% complete’ and ‘made with safe, high-quality ingredients,’ while at the same time intentionally omitting areas of nutritional weakness, which combined to give reasonable consumers the false impression that Nutrish Zero Grain dog food is a high-quality, nutritionally complete dog food that is beneficial to dogs' health without the need for supplementation.”
Moreover, the defendants have been aware since at least 2006 that dietary taurine is critical for dogs, particular for those ingesting legume-based protein, yet “inexplicably failed to disclose to consumers” that Nutrish Zero Grain fell far short of providing a complete pallet of nutrients, the case alleges. The lawsuit says that even after the FDA’s investigation revealed taurine-deficient grain-free foods were linked to DCM, the defendants continued to “intentionally and systematically” omit any warning to the dangers while choosing instead to “doubl[e] down” on their marketing representations.
Case links years of Zero Grain dog food use to plaintiff’s dog’s heart condition
Per the suit, the plaintiff’s dog suffered a seizure in 2018 “after a period of declining health.” Thereafter, the plaintiff continued to feed her dog Nutrish Zero Grain given she was unaware that the food did not contain taurine, the lawsuit says.
In October 2018, the plaintiff took her dog to a veterinarian who prescribed medications for heart failure, the case continues. According to the suit, the vet noted the plaintiff’s dog had “severe cardiomegaly, consistent with DCM.” The dog will be on heart medication for the rest of its life, the lawsuit says.
The plaintiff asserts in the lawsuit that she reasonably relied on both the defendants’ advertising and marketing representations and Rachel Ray’s “persona as a chef who cooks health food” in believing Nutrish Zero Grain dog food could offer a nutritionally balanced, complete diet for her dog. Per the suit, the woman would have paid far less than the $30 retail price, or would not have bought the product at all, had she known the defendants concealed the potentially life-threatening dangers associated with the food.
“Through this action, Plaintiff is not seeking damages relating to Oliver’s injury,” the complaint reads. “Rather, Plaintiff is seeking damages and restitution relating to her years-long purchase of Defendants’ Nutrish Zero Grain dog food.”
Who’s covered by this lawsuit?
The lawsuit looks to represent all consumers who bought Nutrish Zero Grain dog food in California within the last four years.
I don’t live in California. Can I still participate?
It’s not uncommon for a proposed class action case to look to represent consumers in a particular state only. Even though the lawsuit detailed on this page looks to cover California consumers, given the case primarily concerns allegations of California laws, that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else will be left without recourse.
It’s entirely possible that other lawsuits will be filed in other states over similar allegations and look to cover a broader range of Nutrish Zero Grain buyers – but only time will tell. If more cases get filed, we’ll update this page with the details and who the suits look to include.
How can I join?
In general, there’s nothing you need to do to be considered a part of or “join” a class action lawsuit. Cases like these typically take months or years to work their way through the legal system, usually toward a settlement or dismissal. It will be a while before the time comes for those who may be considered part of the “class” to submit claims for whatever compensation the court deems just.
But a lot has to happen before we get to that point. For now, it’s best to stay informed and check back with this page for any updates.
The lawsuit can be found below.
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