by Marion Nestle
Jun 2 2009

What’s up with Nutro pet foods?

I wish I could answer all the questions that come in under Feedback but the one from Sophie about the recent recall of Nutro pet foods is on my mind, not least because it is so mysterious.

Some history: As I discuss in Pet Food Politics, Nutro brands were caught up in the melamine recalls in 2007.  The company initially recalled several lines of dog and cat foods.  When owners reported animals sick from eating brands that had not been recalled, Nutro recalled others.  In the wake of that mess, the company was sold to Mars Petcare (yes, the maker of M&Ms) later that year.

The present fuss: Since then, more than 800 pet owners have complained to a website, ConsumerAffairs.com, that their pets got sick or died after eating Nutro products.  Consumer Affairs’ Lisa Wade McCormick followed up by contacting the FDA and filing a Freedom of Information Action (FOIA) to see what the agency had on consumer complaints about Nutro.  Someone at the FDA told her they were denying her FOIA request because Nutro was under investigation.  But then the FDA said it was not investigating Nutro.  But then, people who contacted Consumer Affairs said the FDA had talked to them about their sick pets. So was the FDA investigating Nutro or not?

While Consumer Affairs was trying to figure this out, Nutro announced its “voluntary” recall of dry cat foods, found to contain “incorrect levels of zinc and potassium…resulting from a production error by a US-based premix supplier.” Translation: The FDA does not have recall authority; all recalls are “voluntary.”   Zinc and potassium are essential minerals.  Vitamins and minerals in pet foods – or breakfast cereals for that matter – are added as  pre-manufactured mixes.

The Nutro press release says the company has had not gotten any consumer complaints about the recalled products but that cat owners should watch out for loss of appetite, refusal of food, weight loss, vomiting, or diarrhea.  These are precisely the symptoms that have been reported to Consumer Affairs over the last couple of years and that might be expected from zinc poisoning.

So how much zinc was in the pet food? The company press release did not give the amount of zinc found in its products.  Neither did the FDA.  The FDA announcement merely said that the premixes contained too much zinc and too little potassium.  Lisa McCormick, however, reports that levels of zinc in Nutro dog (not cat) foods were once found to contain 260 parts per million (ppm).  The AAFCO standard for zinc in cat foods is 75 ppm dry weight.  For dog food it is 150 ppm.

Would a level of 260 ppm be dangerous?  Nobody really knows.  According to the most recent National Research Council report, not enough information is available to establish a safe upper limit, but 260 ppm seems like it ought to be within tolerable limits.  But maybe it’s not?  For humans, the recommended intake level is about 10 mg/day with an upper limit of 40 mg/day.

So what is going on here?  In this, as in anything having to do with pets, I defer to Christie Keith, who writes about pets for petconnection.com and for the San Francisco Chronicle. In her recent column on the Nutro business, she lays out the issues as only she can do:

Call me crazy.  Call me a dreamer.  Call me a radical progressive liberal socialist.  Or instead, call the real FDA a failure as a watchdog on the American food supply – both human and animal – that it was created to protect…this was and is a story about the safety of Nutro foods…But I think there’s a much bigger story here.  The FDA works for us.  We pay its bills.  And it’s supposed to ensure the safety of the American food and drug supply for both people and animals…[The result is that] Nutro is left to mop up after a PR mess made all over the Internet, pet owners have no idea what to believe or what pet food to buy, and the FDA has nothing more to say.  We lose.  Our pets lose.  Even the pet food companies lose.  And that’s the story.

Let’s hope that the facts emerge soon.  In the meantime, a few conclusions seem clear.

For pet owners: Don’t buy recalled Nutro products for your pets (the list is in the press releases from Nutro and the FDA).  Insist that Nutro and every other pet food company give you information about what’s in the foods, how they know the amounts are correct, and what their test results show.

For pet food companies: Know your suppliers and test every every ingredient.  If you want your customers to trust your products, release the test results on your websites. 

For the FDA: Take pet foods seriously. I keep insisting that we only have one food supply, and it’s the same for animals, pets, and people.  If the melamine recalls taught us anything, it is that if something is wrong with pet foods, people foods will be in trouble too (recall: melamine in Chinese infant formulas).  And how about being more transparent about what you are doing?  That too might help instill trust.

For the government: How about funding some research on the dietary needs of dogs and cats.  The more we know about their nutrient needs, the more we will know about our own.

For everyone: Insist that the companies that make foods for people and pets tell you what is in their products, where the ingredients come from, whether they are testing, and what the results of those tests might be.

This is why pet food politics matter (and why I went to the trouble of writing a book about the melamine recalls).

  • http://theASICguy.com Harry Gries

    Hi Marion,

    This is a very coherent and balanced summary of what has been going on recently with this Nutro recall, mostly within the last week or so. It was much needed because there has been confusion regarding the totally opposite pictures painted by Nutro and consumeraffairs.com and the pet owners. Kudos to you.

    Personally, I became aware of this recall when my wife stumbled across it while doing an unrelated google search. I posted something on the recall on Twitter, and then things really got interesting.

    First, I started getting followed on Twitter by some pet owners who were also very concerned and wanted to get the word out. Then, I started getting followed by Nutro “ambassadors” who were feverishly posting tweets about the recall and pointing people to the FAQ on the Nutro website.

    Not soon after, a “dialog” (read argument) started to ensue between the passionate pet owners and the ambassadors; the pet owners wanting more info (zinc levels, confirmation that there really were sick animals, info on QA procedures, more activity contacting news outlets) and the ambassadors repeating the Nutro mantra of “see the FAQ”. As it seems, these ambassadors are nutritionists that work for Nutro and also help with Twitter. Unfortunately, they did not seem empowered to do much of anything within Nutro, just to do publicity outside.

    (If you want to follow the Twitter activity, you can go here.

    I don’t know what the truth is between these 2 sides, and I guess that is the point that you are making. We should have more definitive information one way or another.

    Meanwhile, we have a 12.5 year old dog that has been using Nutro for 2.5 years and has also conincidentally (?) shown similar issues (hair loss, occasional vomitting, infections, lethargy) for almost the same time. We can’t tie the issues to the food definitively and we thought it was just “old age”, but I can tell you that we switched him to another brand that same day.

    Thanks,

    Harry

  • Marion

    @Harry: Thanks very much for this. I always hold my breath when I write about pet food because I know how much pets mean to their owners. As for the truth: I don’t believe that pet food companies are out to kill pets. I think they care when their foods seem to be making pets sick. My guess is that Mars has been testing Nutro products like mad, couldn’t find anything, and just didn’t think of testing the premix until recently.

    Because the FDA does not have recall authority, its hands are tied and its officials are reluctant to disclose what they are investigating and why. But the secrecy makes no sense to me. Why not tell customers and pet owners what you are doing on their behalf? Why not disclose test results? Why not let pet owners know they care? During the melamine recalls, companies that disclosed their actions created consumer loyalty and trust. This is a lesson everyone involved with pet food – and human food – needs to learn.

  • Sophie

    Thank you Ms. Nestle, for writing great article. There are 2 main issues with this recall that really bother me,….well OK more than that but one is the food was made in Dec 2008 but the problem wasnt found until May 2009, 6 mos later. This problem made it thru 2 companies that tout major QC at their website. The other issue I have is many reports from pet parents saying they have sick cats and contacted Nutro but yet Nutro’s info, has not been changed, it still reads no affected cats. I worry that many will put off a needed vet visit because the company may not want to come forward and admit there are sick cats and nothing forces them too. Lastly was the lack of publicity, I called at least 9 major news venues & none of them knew about it & several of them put the recall up at their website within hours of me calling them. Whether this is the problem of FDA or Nutro or the news orgs, I dont know, but how can one know if their cat is sick from the food they fed, if its not made well known to the public. Again, I thank you for your well written article. I cant wait to read your new book on pet food, I think you have one coming out soon?

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  • Rocky

    Been dealing with this issue since the Pet Food Recall of 2007, and have decided that PFC’s have found the perfect business – one that profits by turning garbage into gold, and then foisting it off on unsuspecting pet owners.

    For once, I’d like to find a pet food where the food IN the bag cost more than the bag.

    An unregulated food industry which doesn’t control it’s manufacturing processes, is an accident waiting to happen.

  • Smudge and Jessica

    Thank you Dr. Nestle for writing a very concise article about this new recall with Nutro cat food. We are two kitties who are only here now in the heart of our owner. She is frustrated at what she has learned with the entire food supply since we were poisoned in March of 2007 with melamine and cyanuric acid. She has tried to do what you have recommended with knowing what it is the pet food, how they test it and what those test results are…but she is almost ALWAYS told this is proprietary info. How can companies who want my owner to use their product keep it so secret that no one can get simple answers. We know she is not asking them for the secret recipes, just where the food is manufactured and where are test results to know she is feeding safe food. Our owner has two rescue kitties now, as we have left her, as well as two loving golden retrievers,and she recently tried to find out which pet food companies use the same pre-mix supplier as she wanted to avoid these companies–she remembers how the melamine disaster of 2007 rolled on for weeks as it kept “showing up” and she followed the melamine in China with the baby formula which rolled into too many products to count….Our owner does not know why it might be easier to find out who is supplying nuclear capabilities to North Korea than to find out the testing results and other details on food she is trying to serve her “family”…Sighhhh

  • http://www.cctropicalparadisepets.com Craig Wood

    There are pet food companies that try and do the right thing. For instance; Natural Balance has a sight, http://www.naturalbalance.net, where you can go and put in the lot number from your bag of food and all the tests done to that bag of food, and the results of those tests, are shown to you instantly. There may be other companies doing this, but until they do why not buy from and support Natural Balance for doing the right thing. It is one of the best pet foods made so you aren’t compromising quality to get this.

  • Rocky

    Marion, thanks so much for the work you do.

    Your books and site are sources of excellent information.

    Just wondering, but have you ever been guest speaker at any of the large international pet food industry conventions.

    Petfood Forum Asia is scheduled for March 2010.

    Do you plan to attend?

  • Rocky

    Will be happy to support any PFC doing the RIGHT thing.

    Just called Natural Balance, and got transferred to voice mailbox person.

    The voice mailbox person identified itself as a NUTRITIONIST/CUSTOMER SERVICE person.

    Now, that’s a mighty strange combination. Is that someone with technical information, or someone with PR bull s___?

    Will let you know when (if) voice mailbox person returns my call.

    Always a good idea to call the PFC before using their food. Then you can assess the goodness of the food.

    We recall that Natural Balance had melamine “issues” in 2007. The NUTRITIONIST told me that they tested the food.

    They didn’t. Few days later the food was recalled.

    A pet food company will need to EARN my loyalty as it’s not something I confer without proper due diligence.

  • Marion

    @Rocky–I’ve not been invited to speak at a pet food conference but would welcome an invitation. I’m sorry you didn’t have a good experience with Natural Balance. This is a good company (see my discussion of it in Pet Food Politics) . It was sandbagged during the melamine scandal. The company immediately insisted that its suppliers provide testing data to demonstrate that the ingredients were melamine-free. They got caught with melamine because it never entered their minds that their supplier would give them phony test results, but that’s what happened. The company was not going to let something like that happen again so they built their own labs and now do their own testing. It’s possible that they’ve hired a nutritionist to do customer service. If so, that’s another good sign. I’d cut this company some slack. But do keep me posted.

  • http://www.leashwecando.com Ama

    I would consider another category: Pet Product Retailers: STOP carrying garbage and research your entire inventory (or, preferably, research BEFORE you carry).

    As a small retailer, I know that we can be the middleman in a really great way. If my standards are high and I explain why that is and back it up with research, I become an easy way for people to get information on what and why they would buy specific things.

    Personally, I’d love to home feed, but I’m struggling for time right now. I feed only products made here that do NOT source ingredients from elsewhere. Preferably a lot of whole foods, organic vegetables and fruits, etc. I cannot tell you how many companies I’ve contacted that sent me very fishy responses about their ingredient sources. I just don’t trust it right now, so it’s time to be selective.

    I loved your book. THANK YOU for all you do. I’ve also followed your articles in pet magazines.

    What is really troublesome to me at this point is that people do not know about this latest recall. I hear this daily since it happened. Also, many of the people who come to me do so after there is already a problem. When will nutrition be discussed at the vet’s office? Not just the holistic vet, but all? I imagine it may be around the same time it’s discussed at the people Dr’s office and after the pharmaceutical companies stop buying them out.

    Sigh. It’s so hard to not feel overwhelmed by all of this. Thank you for continuing to fight for our pets!

  • http://www.leashwecando.com Amy

    Oops. That’s “Amy” above. Don’t want to hide behind anonymous posts…

  • Sophie

    Marion, have you seen the new info out about the Nutro recalled food from Consumer Affairs? Its very said, reports of sick and deceased kitties. Thank you for caring. http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2009/06/nutro_foia07.html

  • Rocky

    Marion,

    Tks. LOL, sure hope you’re right. Yes, I’ll be sure and give an update.

  • Offy

    Nutro/Mars/Effem does know the “range of levels of zinc” in the foods.

    They don’t know the “exact” levels of zinc in the foods.

    They need to tell the vets the range.

    No vet needs to call Nutro, get put on hold, listen to pr babble.

    They need info to treat the animals at their fingertips the minute they know they’re treating an animal that ate Nutro products.

    So, if you ask how much, they’ll tell you they don’t know the “exact” amount.

    Ask them the range!

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  • Smudge and Jessica

    click on test results for amount of Zinc and other “nutrients” on recalled cat food sent in by a petowner for testing..
    http://www.pfpsa.org/news.html

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