WASHINGTON (WJLA) - Different lots, different stores, same problem: a lethal drug used to primarily kill cats and dogs, never allowed to be used on animals in the food supply, showing up in what you feed your pets.
Earlier this month, WJLA broke the story that triggered an FDA investigation and millions of cans of pet food being pulled from shelves nationwide.
After seven months of research and lab tests, we found the euthanasia drug, pentobarbital, in multiple varieties of dog food.
Hundreds of media organizations have carried our investigation and with it, people from across the country are following how Smucker’s (the brand owner) and the FDA, are handling the pentobarbital contamination.
The pressing question, of course, why is a drug used to kill dogs and cats in their food?
“If you say 'where does it come from?' it comes from euthanasia of animals using that euthanasia drug,” said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Chief Scientific Officer for the Center for Canine Behavior studies and the former Director of the Animal Behavior Program at Tufts University. “So these animals could be dogs, they could be cats, they could be horses. But how is it getting into the pet food?"
It’s something we’ve been asking the FDA and Smucker’s since we first reported our findings.
“The best case scenario for pet food companies is they're unaware,” said Dodman. “Maybe that is their state of knowledge. They do not know. But someone further down that chain is slipping these things in and it's getting in there.”
While the levels we discovered were not lethal, pentobarbital is never permitted in the food supply at any concentration.
Smucker’s has reported the source of the pentobarbital as "beef fat" from “cattle and no other animal.”
Problem is, beef fat isn't even an ingredient on the label. Smucker’s say the beef fat was in animal fat. Yet the company won't say what, if any, other animals they tested for.
“There are things that seem to be missing in their report," said Dr. Sean Callan. Callan is the Director of Operations and Quality at Ellipse Analytics. The lab that conducted our tests for pentobarbital.
“The thing about DNA testing is you sort of have to decide ahead of time what you want to look for. So if you decide you want to look for beef and ocelot and unicorn then you can say 'yup - we only found beef.' But did you look for horse? Did you look for canine? Did you look for feline? It'd be nice to know these things."
We asked Smucker’s what animals they looked for in the DNA test. They would not answer. Raising the question, did they instruct the lab to look for commonly euthanized animals like dog, cat and horse? If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be found.
Smucker’s issued a withdrawal of more than 30 types of Gravy Train, Kibbles 'N Bits, Skippy and Ol' Roy canned dog food.
A withdrawal serves the same end as a recall. The product comes off the shelves in every store in America. So why not call it a recall?
The FDA tells us it was the fastest way to get the products out of stores.
“The fact that this is a withdrawal is not how the law is supposed to work," said Seattle attorney Bill Marler.
Marler is one of America’s premier foodborne illness attorneys.
“I think it's a PR stunt,” said Marler. “I think it sounds better that it's a withdrawal as opposed to a recall. Maybe in many respects people think ‘oh, what’s the difference?’ The difference is, it's kind of important. A withdrawal is: These companies still have control of the product. So they really don’t need to tell the public that they’re withdrawing the product because the public isn’t impacted. A recall is a specific scenario where the product is in people's homes, it's in people's grocery carts. They've already fed it to their children or their animals and that product needs to be completely pulled out of the stream of commerce."
We've asked both Smucker’s and the FDA how many cans of food were pulled off shelves but they declined to answer. A food industry executive, who's overseen a number of national recalls for major national brands, conservatively estimated that number at more than 40 million cans.
Smucker’s tells us as a result of our story, it will test all products for the presence of pentobarbital.
Dr. Callan says that's an excellent first step, but warns without more information, the results could be misleading.
“It'd be nice to know how sensitive their test is going to be. You can look for pentobarbital with a really insensitive measure and never find it. But if you're looking for it with the level of rigor that you need to really rule out its presence, that's a little bit harder to do."
We shared the identity of both labs we used, all of our lab data, methods and protocols with Smucker’s. We've asked them to share the same with us so we can have our scientists look it over to see the types of tests they’ve used and the sensitivity of those tests.
They actually declined to answer all but one of our latest questions. You can see their response and all of our questions at WJLA.
Since our story first aired, an online petition has started, encouraging Smucker’s to recall all of its pet foods and upgrade its production standards to human-grade ingredients. At the time of this article publishing, the petition had nearly 105,000 signatures.