Evanger’s Recall: How Could a Euthanasia Drug Get Into Dog Food?

Going forward, the 82-year-old pet food company vows to undertake stricter testing of each lot of food it produces.

Pentobarbital in a dog food may have been responsible for sickening 4 pugs, one of whom died. By: rothwerx

The recent Evanger’s recall left many of us reeling. Pet food recalls are one thing, but what was so horrifying about this one was the nature of the possible contaminant: a barbiturate called pentobarbital, which doubles as a euthanasia drug.

On New Year’s Eve, Washington resident Nikki Mael says she fed her 4 pugs a can of Evanger’s Hunk of Beef Au Jus as a treat. Within minutes, all 4 dogs were exhibiting alarming symptoms, and Mael rushed them to the veterinarian.

Tragically, one of her pugs, Talula, died. Another pug still experiences seizures, Mael says. A necropsy determined that Talula may have overdosed on pentobarbital.

Here’s a full timeline of the events.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happened since and try to address the biggest question of all: How could a powerful sedative used for euthanization have possibly made its way into this pet food?

Evanger’s Recall Response

By most accounts, Evanger’s took a proactive and transparent stance on the incident with the pugs. Within the first 48 hours, the company had reached out to Mael. It then traced, found and sent cans from the same lot that Mael’s can came from for testing and posted on its website about the situation to let customers know about the potential problem.

Evanger’s posted frequent updates, including test results as they trickled in, and was responsive to consumers on social media. “This is a very challenging time, but we welcome any opportunity to connect and offer transparency and information,” says spokesperson Erin Terjensen in an interview with Petful.

How Could It Happen?

Evanger’s says the drug could have made its way into the food via beef from Evanger’s supplier. The company also blames lax regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In this video, Brett and Chelsea Sher, whose family owns and operates Evanger’s, address the recall:

“Ultimately, what this comes down to is we feel that there is a lack of regulation, which in turn made our supplier let us down, and in turn it’s our name on the label and we let the public down,” Chelsea Sher says in the video.

Could that be the case?

Pet Food Regulation

The FDA regulates pet food, and although it’s not quite as intense a process as it is with human food, it’s still pretty stringent: “The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) requires that all animal foods, like human foods, be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled.”

The FDA conducts regular inspections and tests to ensure that pet food is being produced in a sanitary environment, not mislabeled and safe to eat.

The USDA, meanwhile, concerns itself largely with foods intended for human consumption. “All Evanger’s suppliers of meat products are USDA approved,” the Evanger’s recall announcement states. “This beef supplier provides us with beef chunks from cows that are slaughtered in a USDA facility. We continue to investigate how this substance entered our raw material supply.”

The Unthinkable

It’s long been speculated that euthanized animals — including dogs and cats — make their way into pet foods. In 2002, the FDA received so many reports from vets claiming that their patients were developing a resistance to pentobarbital that a study was conducted to find out how animals were affected by the drug.

The study resulted in 3 important findings:

  1. Although pentobarbital was, in fact, found to be in pet foods, it was at an extremely low level.
  2. No dog or cat remains were found in any tested samples.
  3. The presence of the pentobarbital was attributed to euthanized cattle and/or horses.

“It seems extraordinarily unlikely that the pentobarbital originates from euthanized pets,” says Dr. Pippa Elliot, BVMS, MRCVS, a veterinary writer for Petful. “On a practical level, by law, disposal of animal carcasses is strictly controlled and monitored, making the possibility of pets entering the food chain extremely remote.”

Except in cases of animal health emergencies, euthanasia is not a practical method for slaughtering cattle. Most slaughterhouses use cheaper and more effective methods for day-to-day operations.

The Supplier

Evanger’s supplier remains unnamed because of potential litigation issues. However, Evanger’s says it is no longer using this supplier. “Once we learned the word ‘pentobarbital’ on Sunday — done with that supplier,” Chelsea Sher says in the video. “Never buying from him again.”

Would the supplier even have pentobarbital on hand? Possibly — it’s not unheard of that an animal who perhaps survived the slaughtering process or showed signs of illness would be euthanized and then removed from the food chain.

We haven’t been able to contact the supplier directly, so we can only speculate.

Evanger’s Promises

This was the first recall in Evanger’s 82-year history. What is the company doing to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again?

“What we’re doing going forward to ensure the safety of our products is testing every single lot of hand-packed beef products that comes out of our facility, and we will not release any of that product into the public until it has been cleared by testing,” says Chelsea Sher.

Evanger’s also vows to fight for better regulation surrounding barbiturates in the pet food supply chain. The Shers say they are hopeful that the positive that will come from this tragedy is that stronger regulations will be enacted.

In the meantime, it’s important for everyone to continue to read and understand pet food labels and to stay abreast of local recalls and FDA information.

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