updated 1/12/2009 4:32:34 PM ET 2009-01-12T21:32:34

A local distributor of a popular brand of dog food said Monday it had suspended sales of the product following reports that dogs who ate it died from poisoning.

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China’s recent food safety scandals have centered on locally made products; this time it wasn’t immediately clear whether the product was locally made or imported.

A customer service manager at Shanghai Yidi Pet Co. said the company stopped selling Optima brand dog food last week following reports that more than a dozen dogs who ate it had died from aflatoxin poisoning.

“It’s upsetting to see so many dogs getting sick from the food,” said Gu, who gave only his last name as is common with many media-shy Chinese.

A report Monday in the Shanghai Daily newspaper said at least 20 dogs in four Chinese cities, including Beijing, had died since the end of November from liver complications from aflatoxin, a naturally occurring chemical from a fungus sometimes found on corn and other crops.

It wasn’t clear who makes the Optima brand involved in the complaints.

An Optima brand of pet food is made by Doane International Pet Products LLC, based in Brentwood, Tenn. Mars Inc. acquired the Brentwood-based Doane Pet Care Enterprises Inc. in 2006.

U.S.-based Mars Inc., the world’s largest chocolate seller and the maker of several pet foods, denied involvement Monday but said it was investigating the reports from China.

“To the best of its current knowledge, the Optima-branded pet food which appears to have caused these reported incidents in the People’s Republic of China was not manufactured by, or under the authority of, Mars or any of its affiliated companies,” the company said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.

The statement from Mars didn’t say whether its Optima brand is sold in China, and a spokesman didn’t immediately answer a request for more information.

Struggle to clamp down
Chinese authorities have struggled to clamp down on tainted products. Popular products can be quickly copied as counterfeit products and sold with no regulation for quality. Supply chains for even genuine products can be murky, and the many small, sometimes illegally operated establishments are hard to monitor.

Calls to China’s food and drug safety agency rang unanswered late Monday.

A Canadian living in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, who publicized the issue on his blog, said in a phone interview he thought he had been buying imported pet food.

“When it’s an imported dog food, you don’t expect this sort of thing to happen,” said Ryan McLaughlin, who said his 1-year-old golden retriever, Addie, fell sick and died Jan. 5 after eating Optima.

Some Chinese media reports said the dog food might have spoiled in storage before reaching retail shops. Aflatoxin can cause severe liver damage.

Staff at a local pet shop and clinic, the Shanghai Naughty Family Pet Co., said they had seen about 10 dogs fall sick after eating Optima dog food. Two died, said a staffer, who would not give her name because she was not authorized to speak to media.

A Shanghai-based sales person at Optima Co., the local representative for the product, said the dog food had been sent for analysis. “I’m not authorized to speak about this,” said the man, who gave only his surname, Zhang. No other information about Optima Co., including its corporate affiliation, was available.

The pet food news came the same day Chinese regulators said they were stepping up food safety inspections ahead of the country’s biggest holiday, Lunar New Year.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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