Animal Rights

There Could Be Dead Dogs and Cats in Your Pet's Food

A euthanasia drug has been detected in several popular brands of dog food.

Are there dead pets in your pet’s food? It may seem like a ludicrous question, except for the 2017 recall of Evangers dog food where laboratory testing revealed pentobarbital—the tranquilizing barbiturate used almost exclusively by veterinarians and animal shelter staff to kill millions of dogs and cats a year. Evangers products were subject to laboratory testing after multiple dogs fell ill and at least one died.

How did pentobarbital get into Evangers? It is common knowledge among industry insiders that much of pet foods' ambiguously named meat products come from rendering plants. Rendering plants process dead animals. Rendering plants are most well-known for processing animal byproducts not fit for human consumption from slaughterhouses—like bones, organs and scrap meat—but also sick animals, like “downed cows,” or animals that died before reaching the slaughterhouse. These plants also process other dead animals—including cats and dogs euthanized with pentobarbital. 

The products produced by rending plants include meat meal, poultry byproduct meal, various greases, animal tallow, and more. You may recognize some of these products from your pet’s food ingredient label, because the self-regulating standards the pet food industry has adopted, developed by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), allow for ambiguously named meat products purchased from mass rendering facilities to be used in pet food. 

For those of us who consider our pets to be family, this is hard to swallow. The pet food industry has played off our love for our animals with slogans like “feed them like family” and on package claims like “human grade” and “all natural”—which some might argue is misleading advertising, but the FDA fails to regulate any of these claims or require any testing of pet food products.

After testing 99 products, reporter Lisa Fletcher found pentobarbital in additional pet food products. On February 8, she revealed that pentobarbital had been found in multiple products under the Gravy Train brand. Gravy Train is owned by Smucker’s, the company that also owns Milk-Bone, Meow Mix, 9Lives, Natural Balance, Kibbles ‘n Bits, and a host of other familiar brands. Smucker’s is one of four corporations that make the majority of all pet food products. Mars Incorporated, Colgate-Palmolive and Nestle own the remaining lion’s share of the industry. 

Even with the loose regulations the FDA imposes, it issued a statement related to the Evangers pentobarbital recall:

The detection of pentobarbital in pet food renders the product adulterated in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Therefore, it is not acceptable to use animals euthanized with a chemical substance in pet or animal foods. It is the responsibility of the animal protein ingredient suppliers to implement practices at their facilities to ensure that euthanized animals are either not accepted at the facility, or to determine how they died and ensure euthanized animals are segregated from animal protein going for animal food use. Further, it is the responsibility of the pet food manufacturer to ensure that the food they produce is safe for consumption and properly labeled. One way that a manufacturer can do this is by taking steps to verify the identity and safety of the ingredients they receive from their suppliers.

The plot thickened last week, when Smucker’s issued a statement confirming the presence of pentobarbital in its products:

Please know our internal investigation into this situation is ongoing. We take this very seriously and are extremely disappointed that pentobarbital was introduced to our supply chain. We have narrowed the focus of our investigation to a single supplier and a single, minor ingredient, used at one manufacturing facility. We will take the appropriate steps to ensure this does not occur again.

However, this statement directly contradicts its FAQ which states:

We follow the Association of American Feed Control Officials’ (AAFCO) standards, which strictly prohibit the use of 3D or 4D meat such as dead, dying, disabled, or diseased animals.

The underlying question that remains unanswered is that Yep, that’s great Smuckers/Big Heart Pet Food that you are committed to quality, though the preponderance of evidence (including your own) suggests you don’t. Yep, that’s great Big Heart Pet Food that you follow AAFCO standards that don’t allow for euthanized animals in products, but let’s face it, the data and science suggest that you do have euthanized animals in your products. did that happen? And more so, AAFCO and the FDA, this is now the second time this has happened in the past year. What steps are going to be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again? What is the pet food industry and the government prepared to do to ensure the safety of America’s pet food?

To be honest, we weren't surprised pentobarbital was found in pet food. We released our Pet Food Study in April 2017, which tested nearly 1,000 of the top-selling pet food products for 130-plus toxins. The study revealed high levels of environmental and industrial toxins and contaminants in pet food across the industry, including high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, BPA, and additional contaminants associated with diseases in both pets and humans.

At the end of the day, you can’t find something you aren’t testing for. 

Jaclyn Bowen is the executive director of Clean Label Project.

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