At Evanger’s, a Decade of Problems Led Up to Pentobarbital Recalls

Accusations of rotting meat, “thousands” of maggots and putrid odors at the factory — and that’s just the beginning of years’ worth of problems.

FDA-tested samples of unopened Evanger’s Hunk of Beef dog food were positive for pentobarbital, a common euthanasia agent. Evanger’s blames its beef supplier and weak federal regulations. (Video still via Pet Age Magazine)

Until this month — when several batches of Evanger’s and an associated brand, Against the Grain, were recalled after a euthanasia drug was found in some of the canned pet food — Evanger’s had stood proud of its 82-year recall-free history.

But recalls aren’t the whole story when it comes to pet food manufacturing. A lot of other issues can affect the food and yet a company can remain technically “recall-free.”

Evanger’s management team likes to talk about how the company has been “family-owned and operated” since 1935. But the current owners have only been around since 2002. And that’s pretty much when the wheels started coming off the bus.

The Plant

2006: Sued by the Town

Four years after Holly and Joel Sher purchased Evanger’s, residents of Wheeling, Illinois, had plenty to say to local health officials about conditions at the manufacturing facility.

“Throughout the summer of 2006, the Village of Wheeling alleged they received numerous odor complaints emanating from Evanger’s production of dog and cat food,” the Better Business Bureau notes.

“The Village issued citations to Evanger’s on August 24, 2006, for violating several ordinances. The citations alleged: failure to provide tight-fitting garbage can lids, containers of food and waste not covered with tight fitting lids, failure to provide approved containers, food waste held in unapproved containers, failure to remove refuse, accumulation of refuse stored on exterior property, and failure to abate stagnant water accumulated on exterior property.”

This kicked off a long legal battle.

Several residents and local officials testified about allegedly bad odors and unsanitary conditions. A health inspector said she “observed open containers of chicken, flies, maggots, refuse and unsanitary conditions on the property,” according to court documents. She also claimed to have noticed a “strong rotting meat smell.”

Another health inspector testified that, months later, she observed “‘thousands’ of maggots on rotten decaying animal parts; flies and maggots over unknown rotting substances.”

As the lawsuit made its way through the courts and the appeals process, the smell allegedly coming from the plant didn’t go away, according to residents. A summer camp for kids had to be moved. Organizers said outdoor concerts at a nearby park were marred by numerous complaints about the odor, which was said to be “coming from the direction of Evanger’s.”

2008: FDA Requires Emergency Permit

On April 24, 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) issued an order “requiring that Evanger’s … obtain an emergency permit from the agency before its canned pet food products enter interstate commerce.”

The order was issued after an inspection found “significant deviations from prescribed documentation of processes, equipment, and recordkeeping in the production of the company’s thermally processed low acid canned food (LACF) products. These problems 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.”

Holly Sher told reporters that the FDA’s comments were “highly inaccurate and misleading.”

Evanger’s production facility in Wheeling, Illinois. By: Google Maps

In June 2008, the FDA approved a temporary emergency permit after being satisfied that Evanger’s had remedied the issues.

2009: Emergency Permit Revoked

Between March and April 2009, the FDA continued to monitor and inspect the Wheeling plant. Then, in June 2009, as a result of those inspections, the emergency permit was revoked.

“The FDA is stopping Evanger’s ability to ship pet food in interstate commerce,” said Dr. Bernadette Dunham, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. “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.”

2011: Adulterated Product and Missing Records

In May 2011, a warning letter sent by the FDA to Evanger’s detailed violations found during a 2-month inspection of the company’s manufacturing plant as well as in a sample of dog food obtained from the distributor.

In a nutshell, the product was shown to be adulterated, the agency said.

The FDA explained exactly what it meant by “adulterated”: “Under Section 402(b)(2) of the FD&C Act, 21 U.S.C. § 342(b)(2), a food is deemed to be adulterated if any substance has been substituted wholly or in part therefore.”

Testing found that a Lamb and Rice mix actually contained beef rather than lamb, and a duck pet food actually had no duck at all.

Two years later, the FDA sent a closeout letter to Evanger’s, stating that the violations appeared to have been addressed, but warning that this did not “relieve you or your firm from the responsibility of taking all necessary steps to assure sustained compliance with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and its implementing regulations or with other relevant legal authority. The Agency expects you and your firm to maintain compliance and will continue to monitor your state of compliance.”

2011: A Slew of Sanitation Citations

On Dec. 5, 2011, Evanger’s was cited for a number of health and sanitation issues by the FDA, including:

  • Failure to provide adequate screening or other protection against pests.
  • Failure to manufacture and store foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential for growth of microorganisms.
  • Failure to thaw frozen raw materials in a manner that prevents them and other ingredients from becoming adulterated.
  • Instruments used for measuring conditions that control or prevent the growth of undesirable microorganisms are not accurate.
  • Failure to provide adequate lighting in areas where food is examined, stored, or processed.
  • The plant is not constructed in such a manner as to prevent drip and condensate from contaminating food, food-contact surfaces, and food-packaging materials.
  • Failure to clean food-contact surfaces as frequently as necessary to protect against contamination of food.
  • Failure to use water which is safe in food and on food-contact surfaces.
  • Failure to maintain toilet facilities in a sanitary condition.
  • Failure to provide hand washing facilities at each location in the plant where needed.

2012: More Citations

On Nov. 14, 2012, the FDA returned to conduct another inspection.

Once again, myriad violations were found — and some were uncorrected from the previous inspection. One example: “Failure to provide adequate screening or other protection against pests.”

The FDA also cited Evanger’s for “Failure to store foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize contamination.”

Cook County, Illinois, booking mug of Joel Sher.

The Owners

The plant wasn’t the only problem the Shers were facing. They apparently created some issues of their own.

2010: Utility Theft Arrests

In March 2010, news reports surfaced that Holly and Joel Sher, owners of Evanger’s, had been arrested and were accused of stealing almost $2 million in utilities for their manufacturing plant.

The couple allegedly put their employees at risk by having them do the diversion work.

According to the Chicago Tribune, one employee was allegedly made to don rubber gloves and go up on a forklift to remove an illegal electricity bypass from a pole before an inspection. Another was allegedly made to jackhammer up concrete and asphalt to divert gas to the plant.

“The brazen nature of these thefts is exceeded only by the dangerous conditions that these individuals were willing to expose their employees to,” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez told the Tribune.

2013: Bribery Charges

In 2013, while the above case was still open and ongoing, Joel Sher was again arrested, this time charged with trying to bribe a witness in that case.

According to the Tribune, Sher “allegedly offered $5,000 to a witness in exchange for changing testimony.”

Nikki Mael says her pug died last month after eating Evanger’s. Video still: KUTV

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

In short, there was plenty of smoke over the past decade, leading up to a fire that now roars.

One dog is dead after eating pet food that contained pentobarbital. A consumer, Nikki Mael, thought she was feeding her dog some of the best stuff on the market — human-grade, USDA-inspected “People Food for Pets” — but she ended up apparently euthanizing her own pet with that very food.

Two brands, Evanger’s and Against the Grain, now have had specific lots recalled because of the potential for pentobarbital in the food. (Against the Grain is owned by 2 adult children of the Shers, Chelsea and Brett, and is manufactured at the Evanger’s plant.)

Other recalls may follow in the coming weeks. The FDA’s investigation is ongoing. Evanger’s also manufactures canned pet foods for several other brands, and has said its supplier “services many other pet food companies.”

A spokesperson for Evanger’s did not return our request for comment.

We’ll be continuing to watch this story as it develops.

Don’t miss our previous coverage:

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Melissa Smith

View posts by Melissa Smith
Melissa Smith, discussions manager for Petful, has been researching and writing about pet behaviors for several years. A longtime pet lover, she lives in Massachusetts with her teenage son, their cat Harrison and the spirit of their German shepherd named Gypsy. Melissa is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in multimedia design and hopes to adopt as many needy animals as she can.


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