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Default FDA Confirms Probe of NUTRO Pet Food Deaths, Illnesses

FDA Confirms Probe of NUTRO Pet Food Deaths, Illnesses
Menu Foods earlier revealed it was the target of a federal probe

By Lisa Wade McCormick
Copyright 2009 © All Rights Reserved
April 20, 2009

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has confirmed that the agency is investigating NUTRO pet food, following a series of unexplained illnesses and deaths. Consumers have been complaining for more than two years that their pets have become ill after eating NUTRO products; many have recovered when they were switched to other foods. The company has steadfastly denied that its food is to blame.

Until now, the FDA has been mum about whether it was actively investigating the company. Today, the FDA’s Division of Freedom of Information confirmed the agency has an ongoing investigation into NUTRO — and said that investigation could be criminal or civil in nature. The office did not elaborate on the nature or focus of that investigation.

The investigation came to light when the FDA denied a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by ConsumerAffairs.com seeking a list of complaints and lab results the agency has collected regarding NUTRO pet food. The agency denied the request and said that releasing the information could hamper “prospective or ongoing” action by law enforcement.

“The document(s) constitute record(s) compiled for law enforcement purposes, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings,” wrote the FDA’s George A. Strait, Jr., assistant commissioner for public affairs.

Another pet food company, Menu Foods, said in a recent financial filing that the FDA had commenced a criminal investigation to determine whether Menu violated the Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act. The company noted that “additional actions or investigations may arise in the future.” It did not mention any other pet food companies. Menu last year settled a $24 million lawsuit that grew from the largest pet food recall in U.S. history.

NUTRO, which has extensive international operations, was acquired in 2007 by Mars, Inc., the privately-held Virginia-based food products company. Mars was fined a record €4.5 million (about US$5.8 million) last year by the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) for not observing the required waiting period before closing the transaction. Mars had been by far the leading provider of cat and dog food in Germany prior to the merger.

Under pressure from the German regulators, Mars divested NUTRO's Austrian and German businesses.

Worrisome trend
ConsumerAffairs.com filed its Freedom of Information request for NUTRO records last year after we uncovered a worrisome trend among dogs and cats across the country. An analysis of our complaints revealed that scores of pets from California to South Carolina had experienced sudden and recurring bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive problems.

The only common denominator among those dogs and cats was NUTRO pet food. In nearly every case, we also learned the pets’ conditions improved once their owners stopped feeding them NUTRO pet food.

ConsumerAffairs.com continues to receive complaints about NUTRO from dog and cat owners nationwide. In the past year, we’ve received nearly 500 complaints from pet owners who say their dogs or cats suddenly became ill after eat NUTRO. The problems these pets have experienced are similar: vomiting, diarrhea, and other digestive issues.

Most of the complaints mirror one received last week from Linda P. of New Baltimore, Michigan.

“For three years, I have been feeding my dog NUTRO Natural Choice Lamb Meal & Rice Formula Small Bites Dry Dog Food,” she said. “The last bag I bought, I notice the food color was lighter than in the past. Me being who I am, I believed there was a changed in formula for the better. My Dachshund/Lab became ill, vomiting food chunks and yellow bile as well. We took him to the vet and I have been feeding him homemade chicken and rice and antibiotics and he is on the mend.”

She adds: “How can so many dogs get sick and nothing be done? Today I will start mixing his homemade food with a different brand of dry food. I never want anyone else to go through, what appears to be many, the same situation as our dogs. It will be a week or two before I’m sure my dog is okay.”

NUTRO denies it
NUTRO defends its products and insists its food is safe. Many NUTRO customers also tout the food, saying their pets have had no problems. And veterinarians say several factors can cause gastrointestinal problems in dogs and cats, including changes in diet, newly developed sensitivities to pet foods, and viral infections.

But pet owners who contact us on a nearly daily basis are convinced something is wrong with NUTRO’s food. And they say it’s no coincidence that so many dogs and cats have become sick — with the same symptoms — after eating various flavors of that pet food.

“NUTRO makes dogs sick,” says Erin of Encino, California. “It is a fact and I’m outraged that nobody is taking it off the shelf.”

Erin says her three-year-old Puggle was a healthy active dog until she started eating NUTRO Natural Choice Lamb Meal & Rice Formula and NUTRO Max Beef & Rice Dinner Chunks in Gravy: “After about two weeks of this food, she became sick. (She was) constipated for a few days, then had diarrhea, and finally vomiting and was always extremely thirsty. The last straw was her laying lethargic on the couch with white gums.”

That’s when Erin rushed her dog to the vet.

“The vet said she had allergies, prescribed an antibiotic and cortisone and gave me a bag of Science Diet. I feed her the Science Diet in place of NUTRO because it was free, and she was fine within a week.”

Erin, however, says she made the mistake of switching her dog back to NUTRO after the Science Diet was gone.

“She again had constipation, followed by horrible diarrhea, and finally vomiting yellow bile and white gums,” Erin told us. “There is no way that all these stories are just coincidences … (not) if my dog is fine when she isn’t eating NUTRO and when she is eating it, she’s horribly sick. I have switched her back to Science Diet and all her symptoms are gone and her appetite has returned to normal.”

Another California pet owner says her dog also became ill after eating NUTRO pet food.

“My husband and I purchased NUTRO chicken and rice small bites for our two Chihuahuas,” says Jessica of Larkspur. “After about five days, our six-year-old male Chihuahua became lethargic, groaned a lot, developed a fever, was not excited to go on walks, and lost excitement for anything that used to bring him joy.

“My husband began to suspect it was the new food as he had only developed these symptoms after eating NUTRO. He has always been a healthy and active Chihuahua.”

The couple took the dog to their vet, who ran tests but couldn’t pinpoint the problem. “He was given antibiotics and we are crossing our fingers they work. Our Chihuahua can barely walk, he is groaning in pain, and is extremely depressed.”

Across the country, a longtime NUTRO pet owner in Pennsylvania told us her dog suddenly became ill after eating the food.

“I had been feeding my dog NUTRO for years,” says Amy D. of Webster, Pennsylvania. “I started feeding her NUTRO for sensitive stomachs about 6 months ago. At first everything seemed fine. Then my dog, who never urinated in my house, started having accidents (frequently). She needed to go out constantly and would squat repeatedly, come in, and ask to go right back out. I took her to the vet and began treatment for bladder infection. Upon finishing treatment it started all over again.”

Amy’s vet discovered crystals in the dog’s urine, which also had a high PH balance. The vet put the dog on another medication.

“In the meantime other than the restless pacing to go outside, she seemed disinterested and lethargic,” Amy says. “Then she began having extremely loose bowel movements (an awful bright yellow) in the house.”

Amy launched her own investigation and discovered the scores of complaints about NUTRO on ConsumerAffairs.com.

“I couldn't believe my eyes. Could it really be the dog food I had trusted so much making my beloved pet ill? I immediately threw away all my NUTRO dog food.”

Amy is now feeding her dog another brand of pet food. “And I’m thrilled to say she is her old self again. She no longer has to take any medicines and has no more accidents or uncontrollable urges. Thanks to this Web site and everyone who took the time to file a complaint, I have my healthy happy dog back.”

Not a fluke?
A pet owner in New York told us his puppy had the same experience as Amy’s dog after eating NUTRO. And he’s convinced it’s not a fluke.

“We got our dog two weeks ago and our puppy was healthy when we got her,” says Manny of Fresh Meadows, New York. “She started eating NUTRO Natural Choice for puppies, since it was recommended by a friend of ours. A week later, she started squatting to urinate, but only small drops or none at all came out. When she can urinate, it is frequent, in small amounts, and contains blood.”

Manny took his puppy to the vet, who prescribed amoxicillin.

“She received a sonogram, culture test, and urinalysis test. The results showed that she may have a stone in her bladder. The blood in her urine is caused by the stone scraping the bladder walls. The urinalysis test showed that she had a high PH balance. I don't think it is a coincidence that I have the same exact problem as Amy,” adds Manny. “I wonder if something is wrong NUTRO pet food again. Our puppy is still sick.”

Our investigation into the complaints we’ve received about NUTRO pet food has also revealed:

• Six dogs unexpectedly died — or were euthanized — in 2008 after eating NUTRO pet food. Those dogs include two Italian Greyhounds in Indiana, a Beagle/Whippet mix in Pennsylvania, two German Shepherd puppies in North Carolina, and a Doberman Pinscher in Texas;

• The FDA investigated the April 2008 deaths of two Italian Greyhounds dogs in Indiana. The FDA tested samples of the NUTRO food those dogs ate, but did not find any toxins. An autopsy indicated the dogs died from antifreeze poisoning. The dogs’ owner doesn’t believe those results, saying there is no antifreeze around her home. No one has tested the NUTRO food the other dogs ate before they died;

• Two Italian Greyhounds at a military base in Italy became sick after eating NUTRO food. The dog’s owner told us she hopes the FDA is investigating NUTRO and urged the agency to move quickly. “It is hard to tell how many people at overseas military bases are feeding this (food) to their dogs and possibly killing them,” says Michelle M. who bought her dogs’ NUTRO food at the base’s commissary.

• A pet nutrition specialist for NUTRO told us she’s heard complaints about the company’s food making dogs and cats sick. She reported those concerns to her supervisor, but said they were ignored. She later resigned.

Some pet owners, however, tell us NUTRO is the only brand of food their dogs and cats can eat.

“My Shar-peis are the most sensitive dogs I have ever owned,” says Allison R. of Nampa, Indiana. “On the wrong food their hair falls out, their eyes weep and their ears get nasty. It takes me a good 3 months of only NUTRO dog food in order to reverse the affects of the other food. I have found that the senior diet is what works best, not sure why, but it seems to keep my Shar-Peis looking healthy.”

A Tennessee pet owner also defends NUTRO pet food — and warns consumers not to jump to conclusions based on Internet complaints.

“I feed all of my dogs and cats Nutro products and they are just as healthy as they have ever been,” says Brenda of Springfield, Tennessee. “They have healthy shiny coats and their stools are firm.”

Gradual transition
Brenda also had some advice to pet owners switching brands of food.

“Do a gradual transition from the old food,” she said. “If you don’t, your dog will likely experience these issues. Not every bout of diarrhea, constipation, bladder infection, liver and kidney failure and loss of excitement to go on walks should be attributed to food. Your first responsibility as a pet owner should be to take your dog to the vet before you blame anyone. Do your research and don't let any Web site diagnose your pet.”

NUTRO has repeatedly insisted its food is “100 percent safe” and meets all standards set by FDA, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). A spokeswoman said all NUTRO products are tested for melamine, molds, toxins and other bacteria. And she called the complaints we’ve received “isolated reports of inaccurate information posted online.”

The company, however, set up a special a section on its Web site in response to the issues and concerns raised in our stories. NUTRO said it takes all customer complaints seriously and encouraged pet owners with concerns about the food to contact the company at 1-800-833-5330.

During our investigation, we’ve also contacted veterinarians about the problems pet owners say their dogs and cats have experienced after eating NUTRO. They’ve said it’s not uncommon for pets to have sudden bouts of vomiting, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal problems. They also said a number of factors — pet food, stress, or a viral infection — could be the culprit.

We also asked Dr. Steven Hansen, a veterinary toxicologist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), to review some of our NUTRO complaints, in an effort to find out why so many pets have become sick — or even died — after eating NUTRO food.

“Unfortunately the cases are not consistent and appear to be anecdotal with no real definitive diagnostic findings,” Dr. Hansen told us. “Without any consistent trends in findings we can not do anything any further. This does appear to us to be a situation where bad things happen, but they are not likely food-related.”

Hansen, however, said consumers who suspect NUTRO’s food is a factor in their pets’ illnesses should have their animals examined by a veterinarian and document the problems.

“I would also recommend that if they suspect the food is the problem, they should take a freezer bag full of it — along with the label information that has the product’s name and lot numbers — to their vet,” he told us. “If the vet suspects the food is the cause, the vet should then contact the company and FDA. If there’s a problem, we need to document it and get supporting lab results.”

Owners anxious
The arguments back and forth don't mean much to anxious pet owners, who say it’s about time some federal agency investigated NUTRO and its products.

“After so many complaints, how can this dog food still be on the market for consumers to purchase and feed to their dogs?” Andrea G. of Sicklerville, New Jersey asked us. “I have been feeding my Dachshund NUTRO Ultra dry dog food for many months. Suddenly, 10 days ago, he started vomiting yellow bile 1- 2 times daily.

“It makes me sick to think that I might be the one responsible for my dog's vomiting by feeding him this food. I can only hope that something is done, very soon, to prevent other pets from becoming ill.”
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