A BOISDALE knackery caught up in an investigation into a spate of dog deaths around the state says accusations aired in the media that toxic horse meat was processed at their premises “don’t stack up”.
The latest development in the dog deaths saga has identified a property in the Northern Territory as the sole source of toxic horse meat that allegedly ended up at the Maffra District Knackery and was made into pet food that caused liver-related illness in up to 67 dogs.
Authorities from the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industry and Resources say they have traced toxic horse meat back to the NT property.
The exact location of the Northern Territory property has not been released, but it has been linked to about 26 semi-feral horses sold and loaded onto a truck in late May 2021 for Queensland.
It is alleged the horses were diverted to Victoria because of COVID restrictions, eventually ending up at the PrimeSafe-licensed knackery in Boisdale where they were processed for use as pet food in accordance with the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Pet Meat.
The Gippsland Times is not suggesting the Maffra District Knackery, which was named by Agriculture Victoria, was involved in any wrongdoing, or was aware that the horses may have been from the Northern Territory.
Agriculture Victoria said its test results confirmed pet meat processed at the knackery was the source of indospicine, however, knackery co-owner Karen Backman said they had bought the horses from Shepparton, not the NT, and had no data linking the horse meat to the dog illnesses.
Ms Backman said experts had not even detected the toxic plants believed to have affected the horses, and known as Birdsville disease, on the NT property.
Birdsville disease is caused by eating indigofera, which is a low, spreading plant found across northern Australia, but not in southern states.
But NT principal veterinary officer Peter Saville has told the media that while inspecting the NT property linked to the Victorian pet food contamination he saw ‘’no evidence’’ of horses suffering from Birdsville disease and did not see any signs of the indigofera plants growing on the property.
Dr Saville said he had spoken to the manager on the NT property, who was unaware that the horses would end up in Victoria or be used to manufacture pet food.
In the NT, under its Meat Industries Act 1996, it is illegal for a person to slaughter a horse in that state for pet food if they know or have reason to suspect it has been in an area in which Birdsville disease is prevalent.
Different laws apply in Victoria, but state food regulator Primesafe said it had not identified any non-compliance by the knackery with the governing laws or the Australian pet food standard.
The poisoning came to light about four months ago in Victoria, when dogs around Melbourne and Gippsland began falling ill with a mystery liver illness.
Since May, reports say at least 23 pet dogs have died and 67 hospitalised with severe liver damage from indospicine poisoning that investigators believe stems from eating fresh dog food made from affected horse meat and sold at a range of outlets.
Agriculture Victoria believes that after initial distribution from the knackery, the pet meat was processed into a variety of products, making identification of all affected pet foods difficult.
A spokesperson said it was satisfied with the evidence and data gathered that pet meat processed at the Maffra & District Knackery Pty Ltd of Wombat Rd, Boisdale, also known as Maffra District Knackery, was the source of indospicine and has included tracing the consignment of horses back to the Northern Territory.
But Ms Backman says the knackery only sells horse meat ‘’in our horse meat products (a premium product) and our Kennel Mix’’, and “as far as we are aware” the toxin has not been found in any of its products at all.
The liver damage caused by indigofera is cumulative, and dogs fed affected meat over a period of time are more likely to get sick.
The toxic meat is believed to have affected dogs in Bairnsdale, Traralgon, Mornington Peninsula and eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
In Gippsland, the Main Street Veterinary Clinic in Bairnsdale has treated more than 30 dogs that fell ill, and seven that died, while there have been reports of dog deaths in and around the Mornington Peninsula.
Authorities have been warning dog owners that they should not feed their pet any fresh or frozen raw pet meat sourced from Maffra District Knackery between May 31 and July 3.
In a statement, Agriculture Victoria said “all kinds of 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”.
It says the pet meat that was contaminated with indospicine may still remain in circulation in Victoria, despite voluntary withdrawals by the pet meat processing facility and recalls by pet meat retailers.
After initial distribution, the pet meat could have been processed into a variety of products making identification of all affected pet foods difficult.
The department advised businesses and dog owners to check the source of their pet meat. If unsure, owners have been advised to contact their pet meat supplier to check where and when their pet meat was sourced.
Agriculture Victoria says some products will be labelled as Maffra District Knackery and Backman’s Greyhound Supplies.
Ms Backman said the Maffra District Knackery had been producing high quality pet foods for 45 years, and believes ‘’something is missing from the current explanations to the dog illnesses’’.
NT investigators have collected samples from some of the other horses on the NT property and providing them to Queensland University for testing to see what level of indospicine is detectable.
The department is continuing to assist Agriculture Victoria and PrimeSafe with enquiries relating to the link between NT horses and the indospicine contaminated pet meat.
This is not the first spate of dog deaths in Australia from indospicine poisoning.
A 2011 report in the Australian Veterinary Journal cited several cases of severe fatal liver disease in dogs that had eaten affected camel meat in Western Australia. Two dogs had to be euthanised due to severe liver damage. At the time, Dr Jade Norris from RSPCA Australia called for the pet food industry to be better regulated.