WASHINGTON (WJLA) - New Yearâ€™s Eve 2016 was no celebration for Nikki Mael and her family.
â€œNobody should have to go through what we went through,â€ said Mael. â€œNobody. Not fair. I mean, I would give anything to see Talula again.â€
Within minutes of sharing a can of Evangerâ€™s pet food among her five dogs, she was racing the lifeless animals to the emergency vet.
â€œThey were falling over. They were running into the walls. They were convulsing,â€ said Mael.
The vets told her they werenâ€™t sure what was going on, but that things didnâ€™t look good. Hours later, devastating news.
â€œThey said Talula wasnâ€™t going to make it,â€ said Mael, choking back tears.
Desperate for answers, the family sent the remainder of the food to a specialized lab and drove Talulahâ€™s lifeless body to a veterinary pathologist for a postmortem examination.
â€œPoisoning from the dog food. Thatâ€™s what killed her,â€ said Mael.
But it wasnâ€™t just any poison.
It was pentobarbital: A lethal drug, most commonly used to euthanize dogs, cats and some horses. The deadly toxin is never permitted to kill animals that are part of the food supply and would violate federal law if it was.
â€œPet food violates federal law, is openly allowed by the FDA to violate federal law, billion dollar a year companies are making profit selling illegal adulterated products to unknowing consumers in the U.S. every day,â€ said Susan Thixton, a pet food consumer advocate whoâ€™s been studying and writing about the pet food industry for decades.
â€œConsumers have no information, â€œ said Thixton. â€œA consumer has to become a private detective to learn whatâ€™s really in their food.â€
So WJLA decided to find out.
WJLA partnered with Ellipse Analytics, a lab that specializes in testing food for contaminants.
â€œI think you have a duty to understand what youâ€™re selling to human beings and pets, and I think that the obligation is on you to understand what is, and is not, in your product,â€ said lab founder, Kevin Hicks.
WJLA tested 62 samples of wet dog food, across more than two-dozen brands for the euthanasia drug pentobarbital.
After months of tests and re-tests, one brand repeatedly came back positive for pentobarbital.
In total, we tested 15 cans of Gravy Train. Nine cans â€” 60 percent of the sample â€” were positive for pentobarbital. And while the levels detected were not lethal, under federal law they are also not permitted at any concentration.
Gravy Train is made by Big Heart Pet Foods and owned by Smuckerâ€™s. According to Neilsen data, it accounts for more than $40 million of the companyâ€™s annual revenue.
Big Heart Brands is also the maker of Meow Mix, Milk Bone, Kibblesâ€™n Bits, 9 Lives, Natural Balance, Pup-Peroni, Gravy Train, Natureâ€™s Recipe, Canine Carry Outs, Miloâ€™s Kitchen, Alley Cat, Jerky Treats, Meaty Bone, Pounce and Snausages.
The Big Heart website touts â€œhigh-quality foodâ€ that meets â€œrigorous evaluation and testing requirements.â€
So how is pentobarbital, a drug not allowed to be used on animals or intended for food, getting into the food?
â€œIt comes from euthanasia of animals using that euthanasia drug,â€ said Dr. Nicholas Dodman, chief scientific officer for The Center for Canine Behavior Studies and former director of the Animal Behavior Program at Tufts University. â€œSo, these animals could be dogs, they could be cats, they could be horses - but how is it getting into the pet food? If they say it doesnâ€™t come from dogs, cats and horses where does it come from? It doesnâ€™t come from outer space.â€
Dodman says the level of pentobarbital in the food is beside the point.
â€œWhether itâ€™s doing something or nothing, whatâ€™s it doing there? Where did it come from? If they donâ€™t like the explanation that it's coming from animals that have been euthanized, what is their explanation as to how it gets in?â€ asked Dodman.
We asked that question of both the FDA and Smuckerâ€™s as part of a request for an on-camera interview. Neither answered.
Smuckerâ€™s declined our request for an on-camera interview and declined to answer any of our questions we provided to them, but gave us a statement which in part, says â€œWe launched and are conducting a thorough investigation, including working closely with our suppliers, to determine the accuracy of these results and the methodology used.â€
The FDA, just a short distance from the WJLA studios, also declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview. Instead of speaking to us, and answering our questions, they suggested we contact the Pet Food Institute, which is the trade organization that represents 98 percent of the pet food industry. We asked them to reconsider that response to which they replied that it â€œwill investigate the matter and take appropriate enforcement action.â€
One possibility as to how pentobarbital is getting into food? Experts tell us animals that have been euthanized are picked up by renderers who process the carcasses - which may be blended into pet food.
In a 2004 report to Congress, sources for rendered materials were identified as, among other things, "dead animals from farms, animal shelters and other facilities."
Under federal law, these are adulterated ingredients.
Adulterated ingredients, which are defined partly as: â€œan animal which has died otherwise than by slaughter,â€ are illegal in all food for humans and animals.
Yet in its own compliance policy, the FDA acknowledges it is violating the law and states: â€œpet food consisting of material from diseased animals or animals which have died otherwise than by slaughter, which is in violation of 402(a)(5) will be considered fit for animal consumption.â€
â€œThe FDA tells industry â€˜Yeah, itâ€™s a violation of law, but go ahead, weâ€™re not going to do anything,â€™â€ said Thixton.
In a written request, we asked the FDA to explain its policy that is allowing adulterated ingredients into pet food.
They did not provide an answer.
As for Nikki Mael and her family, she says their confidence as consumers has been irreparably damaged. â€œI don't trust any dog food companies anymore. And reading that the lawâ€™s not enforced and itâ€™s just kind of, â€˜they do their own thing,â€™ I need to make sure that theyâ€™re eating human grade food.â€
Since Talulaâ€™s death, Nikkiâ€™s been making pet food at home, so she knows exactly whatâ€™s in it. Sheâ€™s also the lead on a class action lawsuit against Evangerâ€™s, the company that made the food the FDA attributes to Talulaâ€™s death. We tested several cans of Evangerâ€™s for our report and those cans came back negative.
â€œI miss Talula a lot. Not fair. But I hope that other animals can be saved by this,â€ said Mael.
If you want to contact the FDA, Smuckerâ€™s or Big Heart Brands regarding this issue:
Big Heart Brands: 415-247-3000