It was New Year’s Eve when Nikki Mael fed her four pugs – Tito, Tank, Tito, Tinkerbell and Talula – the single can of dog food, Evanger’s Hunk of Beef, as a treat. Within 15 minutes, the pugs were “acting drunk” and “falling over” Mael, of Washougal, Washington, told KATU.
She quickly rushed them to the local emergency vet, where the four dogs were placed in the intensive care unit.
“When they got there, they were just limp,” she said. “They weren’t moving or anything.” Tito was still suffering from seizures days later, and Talula – one of the pugs that ate the most canned beef – died.
A toxicology report later revealed the cause of her death. A drug called pentobarbital, a euthanasia agent, was found in both the dog’s stomach and the Evanger’s dog food. “If this sample came directly from a can,” the toxicologist wrote, “this is an urgent matter.”
According to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration statement released Friday, Evanger’s, a family-owned and -operated cat and dog food business, decided to voluntarily recall five lots of the product – all of the Hunk of Beef products that were manufactured that same week. The products were distributed to retail locations and sold online in these states: Washington, California, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Hunk of Beef is Evanger’s best-selling food. Pets nationwide consume more than one million cans of the product each year, the company said in a statement. By the time Evanger’s heard about the New Year’s Eve incident, it believed that at least 200 dogs had already consumed the food from the same lot number, but no other household in the country aside from Mael’s reported an illness, the company said.
“We feel that we have been let down by our supplier, and in reference to the possible presence of pentobarbital, we have let down our customers,” the family-owned company, which has been in business for 82 years, said.
Despite having worked with the supplier of this specific beef for about 40 years, Evanger’s immediately decided to cut its ties with the supplier, which also serves a number of other companies.
“Something like this seemed impossible,” Evanger’s said in its statement. “All of our raw materials are sourced from USDA-inspected facilities, and many of them are suppliers with whom we have had long-standing relationships.”
The source of the contamination is still unknown. But since pentobarbital is routinely used to euthanize animals, the most likely way it could get into dog food would be in rendered animal products, according to a 2002 FDA report. Rendered products undergo a process that converts animal tissues to feed ingredients, the report stated, and pentobarbital seems to be able to survive this process. If animals are euthanized with pentobarbital and subsequently rendered, pentobarbital could remain in the rendered feed ingredients.
But, Evanger’s said, research suggests pentobarbital is most pervasive in dry dog foods that source rendered ingredients, unlike Evanger’s, which primarily manufactures canned foods that would not contain any rendered materials.
The company said it was previously “unaware of the problem of pentobarbital in the pet food industry.” It said that after looking into it and speaking with several suppliers, it discovered a number of holes in regulations by the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Chelsea Sher, whose parents own the company, said in a video statement that the company’s goal is now to “close that gap” to ensure that no euthanized animal ever makes it into the pet food stream
“What we learned was that pentobarbital is very highly controlled, and that, if an animal is euthanized, it is done so by a veterinarian,” the company said. Once this process has concluded, there is no regulation requiring the veterinarian to place a marker on the animal indicating it has been euthanized and “guaranteeing that product from euthanized animals cannot enter the food chain,” the company said in a statement on its website.
In addition to being used on animals, pentobarbital has been used in a cocktail of drugs to execute prisoners in at least 14 states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. One convict executed with pentobarbital in Oklahoma in 2014, Michael Lee Wilson, cried out that he could feel his “whole body burning” after he was injected with the drug. Some civil rights groups at the time claimed the injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, since its manufacture is often poorly regulated, and contaminated batches can cause excruciating pain before death.
Evanger’s donated the full $5,800 fundraising goal on the crowdfunding page Mael created to raise money for her pugs’ veterinary bills.
“We at Evanger’s are deeply horrified about this,” the company said in a message to Mael, adding “we also feed our own dog, Lilly, this food.”
The company later said it would be making a donation to a local shelter in honor of Talula.
“I lost my dog,” Mael said in the days after Talula’s death, wiping tears from her eyes. “It shouldn’t have to be this way.”
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