Petful has been dutifully following the most recent recalls on pet foods containing pentobarbital. Last year, a number of Evanger’s dog foods were found to contain pentobarbital. This year, numerous Smucker’s products, including Gravy Train, were recalled.
Although all recalls are of concern because they put our pets in danger and make us lose even more faith in the pet food industry, many pet foods recalled for problems stemming from salmonella, for example, may occur from human error, not human deceit.
When significant doses of pentobarbital is found in pet food, that may be a horse of a different color.
Pentobarbital is a barbiturate, most commonly used in the euthanasia of pets and horses. Animals or animal byproducts intended for food consumption are never supposed to be euthanized with a drug like pentobarbital. They are supposed to be killed in slaughterhouses, usually by the captive bolt method.
Only the sickest “downer” cow that can’t make it in transit might be euthanized with pentobarbital. These animals are picked up by animal renderers. If the renderer knows the animal was euthanized with drugs, no part of that animal or animal byproduct should be sold to a pet food company.
Why It’s in Pet Foods
The most likely explanation for pentobarbital in pet food is the presence of a euthanized animal in the food chain.
When pentobarbital is found in pet food, people have jumped to the unsettling conclusion that euthanized dogs and cats were used to manufacture the pentobarb-contaminated pet food, since euthanizing dogs and cats is the most common use of this drug.
Dog and cat meat has not been found in any of these recalled foods. DNA testing has proven that horse meat was found in the Evanger’s pentobarb-tainted food, and Smucker’s is reporting that only DNA from cows, sheep and pigs was found in the animal fat contaminated with pentobarbital. They claim they are stepping up their screening for pentobarbital.
Is it too little too late? All batches should have been screened for pentobarbital at all times. Smucker’s should also reconsider the use of the cheapest meal and fat products in their foods and check the integrity of their supply chains before winning back the public’s trust.
Let’s look at the most highly documented cases researched by the FDA regarding pentobarbital in pet food:
- In 2002, after pentobarbital was found in pet food, the veterinary division of the FDA did an in-depth study of how dangerous pentobarbital is when consumed by dogs. The levels found in 2002 were considered not dangerous and at least 50 times below a level that would even make a minor change in a dog’s liver.
- Pentobarbital was found in Evanger’s dog food last year. The level was high enough to cause death in a dog. More on this sad case in a bit.
- The most recent case involving the multiple Smucker’s pet foods is pointing to a low level of the drug in the food, hopefully not enough to cause long-lasting or even mild chronic damage to a dog. This is still under investigation.
Small amounts of pentobarbital is cleared as a toxin in a normally functioning liver of an animal or person. Take it from me — I checked into this the first time I inadvertently sprayed euthanasia solution all over my face and tasted that thick, bitter drug on my lips and in my mouth. (This happened because my needle was not securely on the syringe.) Yuck and stupid on many levels!
The few drops of 100 percent straight pentobarbital solution I ingested was a much greater dose than the trace levels of the drug found in most of these tainted pet foods. That being said, I don’t intend to repeat the event, and pentobarbital should never be found in any foods.
Screening for Pentobarbital in Pet Foods
When pet food batches are properly screened for pentobarbital and other toxins, the technology can pick up minuscule amounts of pentobarbital, amounts far less than the FDA reports could be dangerous, even if fed daily to your dog over a period of time.
In over 1 million pounds of meat, 1 animal euthanized with pentobarbital can be detected in 5,400 clean animals.
That being said, there is zero tolerance for pentobarbital in pet food. Any amount of the drug found in pet food is a violation, and the pet food company is at fault, regardless of where the tainted meat or byproduct came from.
In terms of the Evanger’s disgrace last year, a small dog died due to the amount of pentobarbital in the food. This was a far more serious infraction than a tiny amount of pentobarb in an animal byproduct. Most likely, euthanized animals were used as the meat source in the Evanger’s food.
Many of you trust and like the marketing of the “boutique” food companies that promise you a higher-grade food made of wholesome ingredients. While many of their claims may be true, these smaller companies are not as rigorous at testing every batch as the giant companies.
They (hopefully) buy all their products from reliable sources where pentobarbital is never found, but they do not do as thorough a job at testing. This is a sad catch-22 of the industry.
The Pet Food Manufacturer Is Responsible
In the most recent case — let’s call it “The Gravy Train/Kibbles ’n Bits Affair” — the pentobarbital most likely came from rendered animal fat or low-grade meat meal product.
“Meat” and “meat byproducts” can only come from cows, sheep, goats and pigs. A veterinarian who is an advisor to the AAFCO Feed Ingredient Definitions explained that rendered products like “meat meal,” “meat and bone meal” and “animal fat” may contain tissues from any mammal other than those 4 listed above. These meal and animal fat products, usually purchased from an unscrupulous, independent, bottom-of-the-barrel supplier, are most likely to contain drug residues.
Meat and bone meal is 1 ingredient. It is true junk and often used in very cheap food like Ol’ Roy. This is very different from a “meat byproduct,” which can only come from slaughtered cows, sheep, goats or pigs where no pentobarbital is used.
Here’s a news item from just this year regarding a recent recall:
The Sad State of the Pet Food Industry
Unfortunately, pentobarbital is probably going to be found again in pet food because the suppliers of meat meal, bone meal and animal fat sold to pet food companies may use animals killed with pentobarbital. It is the responsibility of the pet food industry to step up its game, buy from reputable sources and be rigorous with its quality controls.
Profit motive rules pet food companies. For “cheap” pet foods, the desire to manufacture pet foods as inexpensively as possible is their reason for being. In my opinion, you have the least risk when you buy a high-quality, more expensive pet food from a large company. It doesn’t hurt to buy from a company that supports the veterinary industry because they don’t want us on their bad side.
As for reading labels, don’t put too much stock in their claims or expect to understand all the terminology. It’s a devious world out there. I wish I had a more hopeful message.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Mar. 21, 2018.