Menu Foods recall shines light on animals' legal rights

Issue centers on whether pets are persons, property
2007-04-10T00:00:00Z Menu Foods recall shines light on animals' legal rightsCHRISTINE PAE
Medill News Service
April 10, 2007 12:00 am  • 

If class-action lawsuits materialize in the wake of recent cases of contaminated pet food, the "class" is likely to be a four-legged one.

Decades ago, animals showing up as parties to litigation may have been absurd. Advocates of animal law at the Animal Legal Defense Fund say times have changed.

"We don't get that reaction any more from judges and from lawyers," ALDF Founding Director Joyce Tischler said. "For the most part, animal law has become far more mainstream."

Recognition for animal law has grown in past years, and with the help of instances such as the Menu Foods recall, animal law could see a solid future.

"I think over time attitudes are changing, but this may help to move it along," said Amy A. Breyer, one of the only full-time Chicago-based attorneys who specializes in animal law.

Animals' legal rights rest mainly on whether pets are considered persons or property, Breyer said. When animals are considered property, as they are in Illinois, they have no voice in the courts, she said.

Some pet owners consider their pets as not only companions but family members as well.

In a 1995 American Animal Hospital Association survey, 70 percent of respondents said they considered their pets as children. In a separate survey the group released in 2004, 93 percent said they would risk their own lives for their pet.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has so far received more than 10,000 complaints regarding the recall and confirmed 15 pet deaths related to the food contamination.

Nestlé Purina, Del Monte Pet Products and Hills Pet Nutrition joined the recall alert Monday. In a separate case, Dingo pet products also alerted consumers of salmonella found in its pet treats.

Even after the furor surrounding the recall fades from the public consciousness, Tischler said it will not lessen the importance of animal law.

"The pet food recall is a big issue now, but there have been other issues before and there will be more," Tischler said.

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