By Truman Lewis
May 21, 2009
For more than a year, NUTRO Pet Products has shrugged off consumer complaints about dogs and cats becoming ill and even dying after eating the company's food. The company's public relations agents have insisted the food was "100 percent safe" and both NUTRO and the taxpayer-supported agency charged with regulating the safety of animal feed — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — have denied there is any kind of investigation into NUTRO products.
But today, the FDA announced a recall of more than 20 kinds of dry NUTRO cat food that has been sold in at least 11 countries, including all 50 states in the U.S. The FDA allowed the company to write the press release, which was then posted on the official FDA Web site. The company-written statement repeatedly stresses that the recall is voluntary and pins the blame on an unidentified supplier who supposedly allowed excessive levels of zinc and under-supplemented potassium in its premix. (Complete list) The company takes credit for finding the problem.
As usual, the company claimed it has received no consumer complaints about the recalled cat food but said cat owners should monitor their cat for symptoms, including a reduction in appetite or refusal of food, weight loss, vomiting or diarrhea. If a cat is experiencing health issues or is pregnant, consumers should contact their veterinarian.
However, among the more than 800 consumer complaints ConsumerAffairs.com has received about NUTRO products since 2007, many have been about illnesses and deaths involving cats. Many of the aggrieved consumers also contacted NUTRO.
"I was approached by a rep for Nutro Cat food in January 2009," said Jean of Terre Haute, Ind. "I told her we had just adopted two Ragdoll kittens and she told us that Nutro brand was so good and natural and she had Ragdolls and it would be very good for them, etc. We purchased it and slowly changed their food over to Nutro. They began vomiting yellow and were shedding hair like crazy and had gas, etc. I found this site and was horrified to read what folks have been going thru and ... dodged a bullet by switching cat food immediately."
Linda of Richmond, British Columbia, tried to speak to NUTRO about one of her cats began vomiting after eating NUTRO and another refused to eat it.
"I got worried and phoned their company and was eventually yelled at by Diane, the consumer receptionist. I contacted the store where I bought it, and was told another client complained of a very sick cat. A rep contacted me and was rude to me. I ended up throwing the crap out and putting them on Kirkland cat food. My cat gained back ALL of her weight within 2 months. I was treated very badly by those roaches at Nutro."
FDA all the way
Besides publishing NUTRO's carefully-crafted and self-congratulatory press release verbatim — and without making any attempt to verify the truth or falsity of the claim that the company had not received any complaints about the problem — the FDA has for months gone out of its way to avoid giving offense to the company, owned by the powerful Mars Corp., of McLean, Va., one of the world's largest pet food and candy producers.
When ConsumerAffairs.com asked FDA about the consumer problems with NUTRO — which are many times more numerous than for other brands of pet food — the agency had little to say. Reporter Lisa Wade McCormick last spring filed a Freedom of Information Action (FOIA) request last spring, asking for all consumer complaints, investigatory reports and lab tests that the agency had in its files.
After the usual delay of many months, the agency's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) responded, saying it did not have any such documents and referred the request to other FDA departments. The request was eventually denied on the grounds that supplying the documents would jeopardize ongoing investigations. Questioned by McCormick, an FDA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the request was denied because the agency was investigating NUTRO.
But just a few days later, the CVM — which had already conceded that it would have no responsibility for such an investigation — issued a press release claiming that NUTRO was not being investigated and asserting that reports otherwise were in error. Earlier this week, ConsumerAffairs.com appealed the agency's latest refusal to release the documents.
"Though the reports on whether the FDA is investigating Nutro have been conflicting, the FDAs official position is that there is no pending investigation of Nutro. Therefore, the FDA may not rely on the 'law enforcement' exemption of FOIA because, according to the FDA, there is no pending enforcement proceeding against Nutro," said Cameron Stracher, a New York attorney who represents ConsumerAffairs.com.
Facts and true facts
Despite the FDA's denial that it is investigating NUTRO, consumers have confirmed that FDA inspectors came to their homes investigating their pets' deaths.
In one instance, the FDA investigator told a consumer that he had learned of her pet's death by reading her complaint on ConsumerAffairs.com.
"The FDA's odd insistence that there is no investigation — when all the evidence indicates that there is — leads to an even more obvious and urgent question," said James R. Hood, president of ConsumerAffairs.com. "If the agency is telling the truth and there is indeed no investigation, it seems logical to ask, 'Why isn't there?'"
"One would think that NUTRO and the FDA would be curious as to why so many pet owners have reported their animals became ill after eating NUTRO products and — in some cases — mysteriously improved when they were switched to other foods. A public relations blitz won't get to the bottom of it. The FDA needs to stop stalling and do its job," Hood said.
Earlier this week, Sherri of Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote about her experience with NUTRO: "My pure bred Portuguese water dog began vomiting, having loose stools and acting lethargic after 4 months on Nutro Natural Choice Herring & Rice Formula. The vet could not explain, blood levels normal, intestinal antibiotics/probiotics given, intestines 2x normal size, surgery revealed no obstructions, every time food was readministered it began again. Vet suggested I stop Nutro after learning about other dogs problems. My dog is now on Natural Balance and is doing perfectly fine."
Sherri said she contacted NUTRO about a week ago. They said they'd contact her vet, but so far, they have not, she said. They also said they'd send her an envelope for samples of the food. She said they have yet to do that.
In her posting, Sherri urged other pet owners to contact the FDA and ask it to investigate.