Written by David Castellon
Under a settlement with state officials, Western Milling, LLC, will stop producing horse and specialty feeds at its Goshen manufacturing plant and pay $526,500 in fines to continue operating after feed produced there killed and sickened dozens of horses and cows.
But the company’s legal problems are far from over.
The settlement with the California Department of Food and Agriculture stems from incidents in September 2015 at horse boarding and training facilities in Clovis and Temecula where 20 show horses died and 31 others suffered severe, ongoing health problems after eating Western Milling’s Western Blend Horse Feed that had been contaminated with a medical supplement toxic to horses.
Flurry of legal action
The owners of those horses and the boarding businesses have filed lawsuits accusing Western Milling of negligence, fraud and defective manufacturing of its feed.
And Western Milling is embroiled in another lawsuit against its insurance carrier for not reimbursing it for more than $2 million the company paid out to the owners of 861 head of cattle that died in August 2014 at a Goshen-area ranch as a result of eating feeds containing high levels of monensin, the same antibiotic that killed and sickened the horses in Clovis and Temecula nearly a year later.
The 2015 horse deaths led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture, which tested the animals’ feed and found had traces of monensin, which is additive for medicated poultry, cow and bull feeds manufactured at the Goshen plant.
After that initial discovery, Western Milling voluntarily recalled 1,100 50-pound bags of its Western Blend feed.
While beneficial to poultry and cattle in proper doses, even small amounts of monensin can be toxic to horses.
“Almost immediately after consuming the contaminated feed, plaintiffs’ horses began to suffer serious adverse side effects” ranging from colic to acute neurological symptoms to sudden death, according to the lawsuit filed by the owners of the horses and the boarding businesses.
Most of those horses were stabled at Black Fence Farm in Clovis, a horse boarding and training facility that relocated to Sanger after the incidents.
Initial reports indicated that some of the animals there died right away, while others fell ill and one suffered a heart attack but survived.
At Ross Equestrian in Temecula, four horses died after eating the tainted feed, and the stable has since shut down.
“Many horses have died painful and violent deaths, other horses have been euthanized after suffering and deterioration for a week and others continue to suffer and deteriorate and require veterinary care on a daily and/or weekly basis,” the lawsuit states.
It goes on to say that the surviving horses are unsafe to ride, “and certainly are no longer fit for use or competition.”
Fresno attorney Adam B. Stirrup, who is representing the plaintiffs, said the horses were like family to their owners, and the lawsuit states that many suffered anxiety, depression and nightmares over what happened.
Stirrup said his clients see Western Milling’s settlement with the CDFA as a step in the right direction.
“But the reality is, unless somebody is gong to make sure these regulations are enforced … I worry if Western Milling is going to live up to this edict and order,” said Florida attorney Andrew Yaffa, who also is representing the owners of the dead and injured horses.
Finding the problem
State and federal investigators haven’t determined what happened at Western Milling to cause the feed to be contaminated with monensin beyond stating that an error in mixing the feed ingredients occurred.
Stirrup said the lawyers representing the horse owners have not yet begun the discovery process to try to uncover what happened.
Western Milling didn’t respond to interview requests.
Yaffa noted that Western Milling’s problems with cross contamination of feed ingredients goes back further than what happened to the horses in Clovis and Temecula.
The FDA’s website shows Western Milling voluntarily recalled horse feed produced at its Goshen plant twice in 2011 after state inspectors found monensin in them.
The company also recalled what was supposed to be non-medicated turkey feed in 2010 and 2011 after traces of monensin turned up.
And a lawsuit and countersuit involving Western Milling and it insurance carrier, Praetorian Insurance Co., filed in Fresno County Superior Court details a separate incident which 861 cattle boarded at Goshen West Ranch died, and an undisclosed number suffered unspecified ailments after eating Western Milling medicated feed with overly-high levels of monensin — which also goes by the trade name, “Rumensin.”
The suit states that after Western Milling committed to paying the animals’ owners more than $2.66 million to cover their losses, Praetorian didn’t reimburse the feed company, leading to the lawsuit.
Problems in late 2016
And in a separate occurrence, “In 2016, the [Goshen] facility improperly mixed the same livestock drug into medicated cattle feed, which contributed to the deaths of several dairy calves” at a Hanford-area dairy.
In that case, 87 calves died over the course of a week in early September 2016, and the 46 that survived suffer from ongoing health problems preventing them from being bred to produce milk and to give birth to more calves, said Ryan Dias, owner of Dias and Sons Dairy, northwest of Hanford.
He said initially the calves showed signs that they might have pneumonia, but then they collapsed, bloated and died with foam coming out of their mouths.
“Some of the calves that were dying were healthy — beautiful, healthy calves,” but an autopsy on of the carcasses by UC Davis veterinarians revealed it had died of monensin poisoning, Dias said.
UC Davis also tested packages of a vitamin additive made by Western Milling that was added to his calves’ feed, and they had monensin at levels higher than they should have been, he recounted.
“We’re just raising them to be comfortable,” Dias said of the surviving calves, which endured so much organ damage from the monensin that even when they are old enough for breeding, the shock of giving birth likely would kill them.
“This has been devastating to me. I need these animals to replace the older cows when it’s time,” and they’ll never be able to breed, and be milked, which could cost his business heavily if Western Milling doesn’t compensate him for his dead and injured cows, he said.
“The compensation they offered me is a joke,” said Dias, who turned the offer down and now is suing the feed maker for loss and damages, with a trial tentatively scheduled for December.
Settlement bars some production
In October 2016, the CDFA initiated a formal process to deny renewal of Western Milling’s operating license, which led to negotiations of manufacturing changes at the company and the agreement with terms that include:
• All manufacturing of equine (horse) feed was discontinued as of April 15.
• Western Milling will maintain samples of bulk products it manufactures for 90 days and keep samples of bagged feeds for 120 days. Some samples may be held longer at the CDFA’s request.
• Ingredients moved internally within the Goshen plant will be logged, documented and weighed.
• A daily inventory of animal drugs and bulk feed ingredients will be documented every day manufacturing occurs.
• Animal drugs will be secured at all times.
• A mixer control upgrade will be implemented
• The east and west sides of the Goshen plant will be divided, and a category of ingredients — including monensin — will not be allowed on the west side. Additionally, Western Milling was required to install additional ingredient storage tanks.
• $200,000 of the company’s fine will be paid by buying new equipment and initiating safety measures that exceed industry standards.
Steve Lyle, a CDFA spokesman, said the changes demanded by his agency are “to ensure that safe feed is being manufactured. There are standard operating procedures in place, monitoring activities, and systems of verification and validation to make sure all procedures are properly documented and completed prior to feed leaving the facility.”
“I hope somebody will enforce this,” said Yaffa, noting that Western Milling has been caught before putting out tainted products but didn’t fix the problems.
The agreement also requires that Western Milling discontinue production of specialty feeds for animals that aren’t major livestock or pet species, including horses, dogs, cats, cattle, pigs, turkeys, and chickens.
“It was important to include other species that can be adversely affected by monensin as part of the settlement,” including rabbits, Lyle said.
Dias declined to comment on CDFA’s decision to renew Western Milling’s license to operate under the agreed-upon terms or comment on whether he believes USDA or the CDFA — both of which investigated the deaths of his calves — dropped the ball by not taking more stringent action against the company after earlier problems were discovered.
He did say, “If a dairy messed up and violated as many times as Western Milling has been in violation, there is no way we would be in business.”