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Dog Food Company Recalls Products That May Contain Pentobarbital

Citing the possible presence of pentobarbital, a chemical used to euthanize animals, pet food maker Evanger's has issued a partial recall of its popular Hunk of Beef Au Jus product. Several pugs grew ill after eating it on New Year's Eve; one of the dogs died.

As the company says in its FDA recall notice, "Pentobarbital can affect animals that ingest it, and possibly cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, excitement, loss of balance, or nausea, or in extreme cases, possibly death."

The Hunk of Beef cans in question were manufactured in June 2016; they bear lot numbers that start with 1816E03HB, 1816E04HB, 1816E06HB, 1816E07HB, and 1816E13HB and have an expiration date of June 2020. And although the cans that prompted concerns were all sold in Washington state, the company says the voluntary recall covers all Hunk of Beef cans that were produced in the same week.

Based in Wheeling, Ill., Evanger's says this is the company's first recall in its 82 years of operation. And while its meat suppliers are all approved by the USDA, the company says, it has cut ties to the supplier of meat used in the recalled products.

"We feel that we have been let down by our supplier, and in reference to the possible presence of pentobarbital, we have let down our customers," Evanger's says. "Despite having a relationship for forty years with the supplier of this specific beef, who also services many other pet food companies, we have terminated our relationship with them and will no longer purchase their beef for use in our Hunk of Beef product."

Evanger's first learned of the incident in Washington state when the pet's grieving owner posted an image to Instagram. The company then offered to pay the veterinary bills incurred by the family whose dogs were ill — but it wasn't until weeks later, Evanger's says, that it learned of the possible pentobarbital contamination.

"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 pet food maker says.

The incident also brought out the worst in some online commenters, forcing the family-owned company to ask for more civility, even as it extended its sympathies to Nikki Mael and her family over their pet's death:

"Our hearts go out to the Mael family for this difficult time, as well as because unkind things have been posted on social media that have needlessly been [directed] at both of our families as a result of these claims. We ask that the public discontinue any and all threats and harsh words to either party, as this has been a hard time for everyone involved."

When the FDA studied the possible presence of pentobarbital in dog food, it was primarily investigating whether the presence of trace amounts might make the anesthetizing agent less effective in animals that are undergoing veterinary procedures.

As part of that study, the FDA's scientists also checked pet food for signs of dog or cat DNA — looking at the possibility that a euthanized animal might have been included among the rendered meat supply for dry dog food. After the study found no trace of dog or cat DNA, the agency concluded, "Presently, it is assumed that the pentobarbital residues are entering pet foods from euthanized, rendered cattle or even horses."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.