Pet owners who were informed of the Food & Drug Administration's (FDA) suspension of Evanger's ability to sell pet food across state lines were relieved — and unsurprised — by the news.
News of the FDA's crackdown confirmed dog owner Leslie K.'s suspicions about Evanger's food — and federal authorities' interest in the company.
"A special agent with the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) called me in May 2009 and wanted details of what happened to my dogs after they ate Evanger's food," the Tabernacle, New Jersey, woman told us. "He came out and said Evanger's failed multiple inspections, and this was not a simple paperwork issue or something to do with an unimportant process. He said it was about ingredients and the manufacturing process and people are not getting what they pay for."
The FDA announced late Friday that it had suspended Evanger's temporary Emergency Permit — a decision that, for now, prevents the company from shipping products in interstate commerce. The agency said it took this action as a safety precaution.
"Evanger's, operating in Wheeling, Illinois, deviated from the prescribed process, equipment, product shipment, and recordkeeping requirements in the production of the company's thermally processed low acid canned food (LACF) products," the FDA said. "The deviations in their processes and documentation could result in under-processed pet foods, which can allow the survival and growth of Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum), a bacterium that causes botulism in some animals as well as in humans."
Evanger's downplays the FDA's enforcement measures, suggesting the problems are simply a paperwork mix-up.
"In August of 2008, while updating required process information to the FDA our 'process authority' (processing expert) inadvertently deleted pertinent filings," Joel Sher, the company's vice-president, says in a statement on the pet food maker's Web site. "Evanger's has been working with the FDA to resolve this issue quickly. This situation does not call into question the safety of any Evanger's products. No Evanger's product are involved in any recall, nor is there any indication that any Evanger's product is unsafe."
"Just a paperwork problem"
Leslie's concerns with Evanger's food surfaced in May 2007 when three of her healthy dogs — a Chihuahua, Beagle, and Elkhound mix — suddenly became sick after eating the company's Pheasant and Brown Rice dry pet food.
Two other dogs — one belonging to a friend, another to a neighbor — also became ill after eating that same food. All the dogs experienced vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and urinary tract problems.
"We bought the food during the pet food recall when we were trying to find a safe food," Leslie recalls. "We opened one large bag and two small bags and started to add it to the dogs' regular food. But they all started having trouble. I spoke to someone who said to stop the food. Four of the dogs then got better."
But Leslie's Chihuahua, Remy, continued to deteriorate.
"He was urinating constantly, vomiting bile, his eyes were sunken from dehydration, and he had horrible lethargy," she said. "He wouldn't get up and do anything. This is a Chihuahua who loved to play. One of my neighbor's came over and said it looked liked Remy had aged ten years."
Blood tests run by Leslie's veterinarian revealed problems with Remy's urine and liver counts. Leslie contacted Evanger's about the dogs' illnesses, but said the company didn't seem concerned.
"The owner said he'd check into this and get back to me. I waited a few days and Joel (Sher, the company's vice-president) called me back. He said the company hadn't found any problems with the food. I asked him if he wanted to test my food, but he said 'No, we keep a sample of every batch so we can test it.'"
"After that call, all I got were answering machines and the secretary."
Leslie then worked with The Pet Food Products Safety Alliance (PFPSA) and had her Evanger's food tested.
Those tests, she says, revealed the copper levels in the food were 2.5 times the amount recommended by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
When Leslie contacted Evanger's again, "At first, the office manager was nice, but as soon as she knew it was me on the line she became hostile and rude," she said. "She basically said they (Evanger's) were aware of the copper problem and were not concerned. She said they had not tested my food and no intention of doing so because they didn't get that many complaints."
"She knew she went too far because she later sent an e-mail that said the total opposite of what she told me in our conversation."
But could those elevated copper levels cause the dogs' illnesses?
"All my vet can say is the elevated levels (of copper) are consistent with the problems in the dogs: vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, elevated liver enzymes, and urinary tract problems," Leslie said. "My vet feels it is the food, but says there is no way to prove that."
When asked about Evanger's comment that the FDA's latest action "does not call into question the safety" of any of its products, Leslie told us: "Obviously it does affect the safety of the food because how can the food be safe if the canning isn't done correctly.
"That comment makes me angry," she adds. "He (Joel Sher) tries to refute the FDA orders and notices in legalese. He words it carefully to make it sound like the FDA is wrong. He's trying to make it sound like this is just a paperwork problem. I hope people don't believe it."
"Should be criminally prosecuted"
Deborah V., of Monrovia, Maryland, agrees with Leslie. "People such as the Shers should be criminally prosecuted and put out of business," she said.
"Mr. Sher's callous attitude from day one has been shocking, and yet, here comes our vindication — a little late," she said. "Some people lost their pets to these awful people's food."
"I'm glad this (FDA action) finally happened. I feel relieved that, hopefully, no one else will go through what I have gone through with my dogs."
In Deborah's case, her two healthy 10-pound Pomeranians became gravely ill in November 2008 after sharing a can Evanger's beef chunks.
"Within half an hour, I was rushing to the vet," she recalls. "My dogs were unable to stand, hold up their heads, and they were blind. The vet stabilized them enough to allow me to then drive to the emergency animal clinic, where they were hooked to IVs, and my little guy even had his stomach pumped. He now has seizures, which started in the hospital. He is on a wide variety of meds...and now has a collapsed trachea and [has to use] an endotracheal tube."
Deborah repeatedly contacted Evanger's about her dogs' illnesses, but says the company ignored her concerns. Her roommate finally reached the company's vice-president, Joel Sher.
"And his comment, when told our dogs got sick from their food, was 'Oh, please'. He and his wife are all over the Internet, as well as an employee of theirs, posting information to have you believe they are a very concerned firm. Why not just be upfront? People deserve to know the truth, and I am talking about all of the issues people have had with their food, not just the horror we've gone through and are still going through."
Deborah says her female Pomeranian has improved, "but the little guy will never be 100 percent."
The FDA's latest action against Evanger's is the third in an ongoing series of enforcement proceedings against the pet food maker.
In April 2008, the FDA issued an "Order of Need for Emergency Permit" against Evanger's. That action came after the FDA determined the company had "failed to meet the regulatory requirements to process a product that does not present a health risk."
Two months later the FDA issued a temporary Emergency Permit against Evanger's.
FDA officials said they took that action after inspections of the company between March 2009 and April 2009 determined "Evanger's was not operating in compliance with the mandatory requirements and conditions of the Temporary Emergency Permit."
When the FDA announced its latest enforcement against Evanger's, the agency's Dr. Bernette Dunham said: "The FDA is stopping Evanger's ability to ship pet food in interstate commerce. Today's enforcement action sends a strong message to manufacturers of pet food that we will take whatever action necessary to keep unsafe products from reaching consumers."
Before Evanger's can resume shipping products, the FDA said, it must prove that corrective actions and processing procedures have been made to ensure the company's finished product will not present a health hazard.
Botulism is a toxin that affects the nervous system and can be fatal, the FDA said. Symptoms of botulism in dogs and cat include progressive muscle paralysis, disturbed vision, trouble chewing and swallowing, and progressive weakness to the body. Death is usually caused by paralysis of the heart or the muscles used in breathing.
Meanwhile, pet owners like Leslie are convinced that Evanger's isn't the only pet food maker on the FDA's radar.
"They have to be investigating NUTRO," she told us. "When I spoke with the FDA's agent from Office of Criminal Investigations, I mentioned NUTRO and he said he was very aware of the problems. But he said 'I'm not working on that case.' He caught himself and said that (investigation) could be in the process. Every time I talked to him, he struggled to find a way to say he was not working on that case, but it seemed to me that he was deliberately trying to give me the impression that there was an investigation of NUTRO.
She adds: "Why else would FDA agents not want to talk about it or the agency wouldn't release the NUTRO records [ConsumerAffairs.Com] requested under the Freedom of Information Act?"
Leslie pointed out that the health problems her dogs suffered after eating Evanger's food with elevated levels of copper — vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and elevated liver enzymes — sounded eerily familiar to the ones pets eating NUTRO have experienced.
"I'm seriously thinking that this is what's going on...that this could all be something a simple as the vitamins and minerals off," she says. "That can cause acute illnesses."
Just last month, NUTRO recalled seven flavors of its dry Natural Choice Complete Care and NUTRO Max cat food, saying the products contained incorrect levels of zinc and potassium.
The company blamed the problem on a production error by its U.S. premix supplier, Trouw Nutrition. One of the premixes, NUTRO said, contained excessive levels of zinc and not enough potassium. A second premix did not contain enough potassium.
NUTRO claims it has not received any complaints about the recalled food, but warned cat owners to monitor their pets for such symptoms as vomiting, diarrhea, a reduction in appetite or refusal of food, and weight loss.
ConsumerAffairs.com, however, continues to hear from cat owners who say their felines became ill — with those same types of symptoms — after eating NUTRO's recalled food. Some even suspects their cats' deaths are linked to the recalled food, and two contacted NUTRO regarding their sick pets.
Tests run last August by the PFPSA revealed samples NUTRO's Natural Choice Chicken Meal, Rice, and Oatmeal formula and Nutro Puppy Max contained levels of zinc and copper that the PFPSA said exceeded the recommendations of the AAFCO.
PFPSA's founder Don Earl says NUTRO's cat food recall — trigged by "incorrect levels of zinc and potassium" — gives credence to his organization's test results.
"I feel a certain amount of vindication as a result, particularly as the symptoms are identical to those reported by legions of dog owners," he told us.
ConsumerAffairs.com has received nearly 900 complaints from pet owners nationwide who say their healthy dogs and cats suddenly became sick after eating various flavors of NUTRO's pet food. The pets all have similar symptoms — vomiting, diarrhea, and other digestive problems. And in nearly every case, the dogs and cat became better after their owners stopped feeding them NUTRO.
NUTRO maintains its food is 100 percent safe and meets all federal guidelines. But Leslie says those are nothing but empty words and promises.
"The fact they keep saying nothing is wrong with their food and they are testing tells me that something is wrong. If they were testing the food, it wouldn't take an audit to find the problem. If they were testing the food, they would know that something is wrong."
The active poster on many pet-related message boards adds: "I'm not in this to get any money. That's not my point. My point is that whether you're buying Evanger's or NUTRO or a store brand of pet food, you should be able to buy a product that is safe and doesn't make your pets sick."
Pet Owners Unsurprised by FDA Shutdown of Evanger...