A Brand at the Risk of Extinction

Posted by Steve Kuchenberg on Apr 4, 2018 9:00:00 AM

It’s not a surprise to those that know me well that I enjoy playing in the outdoors in many ways. One of my favorite pastimes is spending time in the field with my “fur-babies”.  My two dogs Reggie and Arlo, have fun but they also “work” hard pointing and retrieving birds in the field, they truly are athletes, and any serious athlete knows that a key to top performance is proper diet.  As other avid pet lovers would agree, I would do mostly anything for them and when I see stories like this “Darwin’s Pet Food owner knew of pathogens in production plant” in my Social Media feed, it really makes me sad.  

The first line in the article says a lot, “The producer of Darwin’s brand raw pet foods knew about Salmonella in its plant, fielded more than 300 consumer complaints about sick or dead pets, and racked up a laundry list of food safety violations in 2017, according to government inspectors.”  Being in the food safety industry for much of my working career and working as COO for a well-known and respected food safety testing laboratory now, this can be summed up in two words…simply unacceptable!  Here’s a bit of history on Darwin’s Natural Pet Products. 

  • The company was started by Gary Tashjian in 2005.
  • Produce a variety of raw (unprocessed and uncooked) cat and dog food products
  • Has been in 5 (yes 5) product recalls since October 2016 through March 2018 for both Listeria and Salmonella
    • October 2016: Potential for Listeria present in 3 types of 2lb packages of dog food.
    • September 2017: Potential for Salmonella present in 1 type of 2lb packages of cat food.
    • December 2017: Potential for Salmonella and Listeria present in 3 types of 2lb packages of dog food.
    • February 2018: Potential for Salmonella present in 2 types of dog food (unknown product size)
    • March 2018: Potential of Salmonella and E.coli present in 4 types of 2lb packages of dog food.

Now take a step back – the statistic above is simply staggering.  First – why isn’t this facility shut down?  Why is he still producing product for the general consumer to purchase for their pets?  In the last year, 332 (as indicated by inspection records) complaints were provided to the company for a variety of problems including foreign material contamination (hair net material, metal, pebbles, plastic, rubber bands), product spoilage, package leaks, and sick and dying pets.  The list of violations indicated by FDA inspectors in both of these articles from the FDA and Food Safety Magazine are staggering.  But – I think this statement that I could find over and over again across multiple sources is most concerning. 

Despite the records, the owner and president of Darwin’s—Gary Tashjian—told inspectors that he had not received any specific complaints of E. coli, Listeria or Salmonella poisoning from consumers. In order for Darwin’s to issue a recall, Tashjian contended that a complainant would need to provide positive test results from a veterinarian, then the company would test for contamination in the product that the ill pet consumed. If the test resulted in a positive, then a recall would be initiated, hypothetically. – Staff (2018, March 28).  Fifth Recall Reveals Known Contamination at Pet Food Plant.  Retrieved from https://www.foodsafetymagazine.com  

ArloReggie-1

If an animal (your animal) were to die, do you think that the first concern or thought you may have would be to have it tested for a pathogen organism?  No – likely, I’m going to be more concerned for the well-being of my family and others who were close to the animal.  If that was positive (but only reported to them by a veterinarian), then Darwin would go back and test their product.  It’s obvious that there is a serious problem going on here.  The reactive approach to food safety is not only wrong but it cost lives, in this case animal lives and the word “hypothetically” is just as scary coming from the owner’s own words. 

It’s not just Tashjiian who’s at fault here; it’s the entire leadership team who likely knew something about this chronic problem that was occurring at their plant for the last 18 months.  While many of the previous recalls have been “silent,” this last one gained specific attention on March 26th 2018 after the FDA announced that they had detected Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) 0128 and Salmonella in samples of raw pet food. This clearly shows many failures for the company.  Why is that important – it’s because of the potential hazard to both human and animal health.  The FDA states clearly,

Pets can get sick from Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli O128, but may also be carriers of the bacteria and can infect humans. Pets do not have to be apparently ill to be able to pass Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and E.coli O128 onto their human companions.              
Raw pet food is more likely than other types of pet food to contain
Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli O128. Pet owners who choose to feed raw pet food should be aware of the risks associated with these products.
The FDA has a
zero-tolerance policy for Salmonella or other pathogenic bacteria in all pet food, meaning the agency will take action, as appropriate, against any pet food found to be contaminated with the harmful bacteria.” – FDA Personnel (2018, March 26). UPDATED: FDA Investigates pattern of Contamination in Certain Raw Pet Foods Made by Arrow Reliance Inc, Including Darwin’s Natural Pet Products and ZooLogics Pet Food.  Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov

There are many questions that I have since I’m familiar with the restrictions that these companies should be following but unfortunately, recalls in the pet industry are not new anymore.  This though – should be a significant learning opportunity for other animal food producers.  Do you really have in place the necessary precautions, due-diligent testing protocols, sanitation and other prerequisite programs to make safe food and/or products? If the answer is Yes- When is the last time you challenged yourself to ensure the program is robust enough to find the problem before it is too late?  If the answer is No – then it’s time that you find a partner who can help you, otherwise, you may end up like Darwin’s brand. After all, if your food safety program is not consistently evolving or part of your company's culture, then your brand is a risk of extinction.  

Topics: Compliance, FDA Requirements, Integrity, Product Recall, FDA, Company Culture, Core Values, Product Sampling