A division of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has denied that it is investigating NUTRO Products Inc., whose pet foods are the subject of more than 700 complaints from consumers who say their dogs and cats became ill and, in some cases, died after eating NUTRO products.
But consumers who fed their dogs NUTRO have confirmed that FDA inspectors came to their homes investigating their pets' deaths. And the FDA is still refusing to release information about NUTRO, saying that to do so could hamper law enforcement efforts.
"They can't have it both ways," said James R. Hood, president of ConsumerAffairs.com, which has a long-pending Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information the agency has gathered about NUTRO. "If there's no investigation, they must release the files, which are public property. That's the law."
Tuesday's denial came from the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), which is not the FDA division that handles complaints about pet food.
But an FDA official, who is not with the CVM, told ConsumerAffairs.com last week that the agency is investigating the pet food maker. The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he or she was not authorized to talk to the media, said the investigation could be civil or criminal in nature.
Despite the backtracking of the FDA and the denials of NUTRO's publicists, ConsumerAffairs.com has confirmed that FDA agents in Indiana have investigated the deaths of three dogs in that state. All three of those dogs ate NUTRO.
Earlier this week, a consumer in Evansville, Ind., said that the FDA came to his home last August after the death of his healthy 11-year-old dog, Ali, a Norwegian Elkhound, who died on July 13, 2008.
"An FDA agent came out to my house and took down all the information," said the pet owner, Mark D. "The agent said they'd (his FDA office) gotten a number of complaints about NUTRO. He said he was aware of the problems nationally and the problems included on your (ConsumerAffairs.com) Web site." Mark said he talked to the agent several times after the agent visited his home.
Mark said he and his family went on vacation last July and took Ali and their other dog — a Collie — to the kennel. "We took her to this same kennel for many years and Ali always ate well."
The kennel's owner, however, noticed that Ali suddenly had bloody diarrhea, was vomiting and not eating. The kennel took Ollie to its vet.
"The vet said he thought she'd eaten something at the kennel," Mark said. "But we asked that if that's true, how come the only dog this happened to was the one that ate NUTRO. We have two dogs; our Collie was on a different food — not a NUTRO brand. She was in the same run and she's fine.
"And we said what did Ali eat that the other dog didn't. The only answer was the food."
Ali then took a turn for the worse. She died on July 13, 2008.
"It was awful," Mark said. "This was a healthy, 11-year-old dog that was taken to the vet once a year. We have all her records."
After Ali's death, Mark had a necropsy done on his beloved dog. That autopsy revealed that Ali died of septicemia (bacteria in the blood) and disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC).
"The vet said the infection started in the GI tract, and he did not see any signs of melamine poising," Mark said. "Additionally, there was a growth on her spleen the size of a softball. When I asked him (the vet) how long the growth could have been there, he said a week or two at the most."
The vet could not say if the food caused her death, but "he could not rule it out," Mark said.
Mark said his vet urged him to contact the FDA, which he did. His vet also sent Ali's NUTRO food to Purdue University for testing. Those tests, Mark said, were negative for melamine, salmonella and e-coli.
Nonetheless, Mark is convinced the NUTRO food played a role in Ali's death. "I don't see how it could be anything else," he said. "It's terrible to lose a dog, especially in that manner...to go like that is not deserved at all."
Mark says he just wants answers about what happened to his dog. "That would be great. I would love to have NUTRO admit this was its fault — or it it wasn't their fault — to find a reason for what happened so it won't happen again."
ConsumerAffairs.com has also confirmed that the FDA investigated the April 2008 deaths of two Italian Greyhound dogs in Indiana. The dogs' owner told us an FDA agent came to her home, took a report, and tested samples of the NUTRO food those dogs ate. Those tests, however, did not find any toxins in the food. Autopsies indicated the dogs died from antifreeze poisoning. The dogs owner doesnt believe those findings, saying there is no antifreeze around her home.
Hundreds of pet owners nationwide have told ConsumerAffairs.com their dogs and cats have experienced sudden and recurring bouts of vomiting, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems after eating various flavors of NUTRO. In nearly every case, the animals recovered after their owners switched them to another brand of pet food. Others, however, died. To date, ConsumerAffairs.com has talked to the owners of seven dogs who suspect their pets deaths are linked to NUTRO food but cannot prove it and are hoping for government help.
NUTRO has repeatedly defended its products, and also denies that it is being investigated. Mars recalled 20-pound bags of Pedigree dog food last year, saying it might be contaminated with salmonella.
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 is a division of privately-held Mars, Inc., which is not required to file the extensive financial disclosure statements required of publicly-traded companies. After NUTRO was acquired by Mars in 2007, Mars was fined a record 4.5 million (about US$5.8 million) 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. NUTRO also had extensive marketing operations in Europe, but under pressure from the German regulators, Mars divested NUTRO's Austrian and German businesses.
News of the FDA investigation came to light last week after the FDA denied a Freedom of Information Act request filed by ConsumerAffairs.com seeking a list of all NUTRO complaints and lab results the agency had collected since 2007, which is when NUTRO became a subsidiary of the privately-held Mars Corp. Mars manufactures candies including M&M's, Snickers, KitKats, Mars Bars and Skittles. Half of its business comes from pet care products, including Pedigree, Whiskas, Royal Canin and Cesar pet foods.
In its denial letter, the FDA said the records ConsumerAffairs.com requested were compiled for law enforcement purposes and releasing those documents could interfere with law enforcement proceedings.
In an earlier letter ConsumerAffairs.com received from the FDA — one dated September 5, 2008 — the Center for Veterinary Medicine denied our FOIA request, saying: The FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine has no responsive records to your request. Complaints regarding adverse reactions to pet foods are filed with the district office consumer complaint coordinator located in the state where the complainant resides."
NUTRO has been citing the Center for Veterinary Medicines denial as proof the FDA is not investigating the company, and the CVM yesterday released a statement saying that "a media report incorrectly concluded and reported that Nutro Products Inc. was the subject of an investigation." But the official ConsumerAffairs.com spoke with last week was not assigned to the Center for Veterinary Medicine. That person is with another division of the FDA.
Media wags its tail
The media response to the dust-up illustrates the sorry effects of the cutback in newspaper reporting staffs and television's increasing use of empty-suit commentators filling positions once held by actual journalists.
The story has simply been ignored by most major newspapers and broadcasters. The few who have touched it have been content with scraps tossed their way by NUTRO and the government.
CNN took its cue from the company's publicists on its 7:41 a.m. newscast a few days ago, as newsreader Robin Meade aired a "clarification of a report that involved a report from ConsumerAffairs.com."
"It (the report) said that the FDA is investigating NUTRO pet foods. It said the independent Web site — which is not affiliated with the federal Consumer Protection Agency (sic) or Consumer Reports — it said it got hundreds of complaints from dog and cat owners who said their pets got sick or died ... but the FDA tells CNN that ConsumerAffairs is wrong and it's not investigating NUTRO."
CNN did not contact ConsumerAffairs.com or any of the 700 consumers who have taken the time to tell their stories but relied totally on the assurances of government and corporate publicists whose interests lie in advancing their employers' interests, not ferreting out the truth.
"NUTRO says in a statement to CNN that it wants to assure its consumers, associates and retailers that its products undergo rigorous product assurance testing and are safe and conform to the specific standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — that's a quote," Meade exclaimed.
"Now as far as the complaints from the pet owners," she continued, "NUTRO says an analysis of the products complained about determined them to be safe and that there was nothing in the pet health issues caused by NUTRO pet food."
Professional groups have also shown little concern, labeling the reports of pet illness "anecdotal." Dr. Kimberly May of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) discounted the source of the reports.
Based on previous experiences with ConsumerAffairs.com, they dont let the truth get in the way of a good story," she said on a trade group forum. "They were one of the sites propagating the microchips cause cancer in pets rumors a few years ago, without any science whatsoever to back up their statements.
May's statement is completely false — no such story ever appeared on ConsumerAffairs.com, Hood, the Web site's president and editor, said. May has since retracted the statement but has not apologized.
"The complete disregard for fact-checking that prevails in today's world is just mind-boggling," Hood said. "People who are supposed to be respected professionals say the first thing that comes into their head while completely ignoring the entreaties of the consumers whose interests they are supposed to protect."
"Any incident can be called anecdotal. A story of a fatal assault during an armed robbery is anecdotal, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen and that measures should not be taken to capture the offenders and try to prevent future occurrences," he said. "The press and responsible professionals are supposed to investigate — not wait for corporate and government mouthpieces to hand them their talking points."
ConsumerAffairs.com filed its Freedom of Information request for NUTRO records last year after an analysis of consumer complaints revealed that scores of pets from California to South Carolina had experienced sudden and recurring bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive problems.
A common denominator among those dogs and cats was NUTRO pet food. In many cases, consumers said their pets conditions improved once their owners stopped feeding them NUTRO pet food. Some animals died, however.
ConsumerAffairs.com continues to receive complaints about NUTRO from dog and cat owners nationwide. In the past year, consumers have filed more than 600 complaints saying 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 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 change 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 Im 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 complain to ConsumerAffairs.com on a nearly daily basis are convinced something is wrong with NUTROs food. And they say its 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 Im 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.
Thats 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 isnt eating NUTRO and when she is eating it, shes 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 couldnt 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.
Amys vet discovered crystals in the dogs 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 Im 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 said his puppy had the same experience as Amys dog after eating NUTRO. And hes convinced its 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.
ConsumerAffairs.com's investigation into the complaints weve received about NUTRO pet food has also revealed:
• Four dogs unexpectedly died — or were euthanized — in 2008 after eating NUTRO pet food. Besides the dogs in Indiana, the other dogs include a Beagle/Whippet mix in Pennsylvania, two German Shepherd puppies in North Carolina, and a Doberman Pinscher in Texas. Those owners have not tested the NUTRO food their dogs ate before they died;
• Two Italian Greyhounds at a military base in Italy became sick after eating NUTRO food. The dogs 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 bases commissary.
• A pet nutrition specialist for NUTRO told us shes heard complaints about the companys 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, say 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.
Brenda also had some advice to pet owners switching brands of food.
Do a gradual transition from the old food, she said. If you dont, 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 weve 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 the ConsumerAffairs.com 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.
Veterinarians have said its 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.
Dr. Steven Hansen, a veterinary toxicologist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), reviewed some of the 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 said. 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 NUTROs 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 products 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 theres a problem, we need to document it and get supporting lab results.
The arguments back and forth don't mean much to anxious pet owners, who say its 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.
Read verbatim complaints and comments from consumers.
Feds Deny NUTRO Investigation; Witnesses Say Otherwise...