NUTRO Dog Food Issue Dates Mars’ PR Approach

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The FDA was rumored to be investigating Mars’ NUTRO pet food after collecting a number of consumer complaints and lab results. Consumer Affairs has more:

ConsumerAffairs.com…uncovered a worrisome trend among dogs and cats across the country. An analysis of our complaints revealed that scores of pets from California to South Carolina had experienced sudden and recurring bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and other digestive problems.

The only common denominator among those dogs and cats was NUTRO pet food. In nearly every case, we also learned the pets’ conditions improved once their owners stopped feeding them NUTRO pet food.

NUTRO, which has extensive international operations, was acquired in 2007 by Mars, Inc., the privately-held Virginia-based food products company.

According to Consumer Affairs, NUTRO claims its food is safe. The NUTRO website says the complaints are “isolated reports of inaccurate information posted online.”

This is the tone the NUTRO site takes on the matter:

NUTRO® products are safe and conform to the standards set by the FDA, USDA and AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). The claims regarding the safety of NUTRO® pet food in a recent report posted on the Pet Food Product Safety Alliance website are unfounded.

The legalese sounds good, but I’m disappointed in the way Mars’ PR is handling the issue. The Consumer Affairs report, while heavy on subjective qualitative experience, brings up an issue that could damage the NUTRO brand.

They reported that dogs only got sick after eating NUTRO. After pet owners took away the NUTRO food, the pet improved. Those kinds of reports are bad publicity for Mars. But instead of taking a personal approach, or sounding like they are as concerned as the pet owners in question, NUTRO is going for the sterile approach.

That approach may have worked before social media, but now, it’s a bad idea. NUTRO would benefit from a YouTube response, or at least a more personal take on the pet owners’ plight. By remaining defensive and aligning itself with flimsy USDA standards (a la salmonella peanuts), NUTRO risks shooting itself in the foot. These are upset pet owners, after all. An upset pet owner is on par with a hysterical parent. Not a good demographic to disgruntle.

Mars’ old-school corporate sterility needs an update.

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  • Pardon me, Drea, but there is not much that is “subjective” in our stories on the Nutro controversy. Our reports about pet owners’ experiences are based on more than 620 complaints in our database. How many news stories have you written that are based on more than 600 citations?

    One can quibble about what is best for a company’s image and about what a federal agency is or is not doing but at some point even traditional p.r. persons must ask themselves how to handle the individual testimony of hundreds of individuals. Sometimes it’s better to just come clean and try to fix the problem.

  • Drea

    James, thanks for your comment. Upon re-reading the post, I realize that “qualitative” is the word that more closely matches my intent in the article. I’ve changed the wording in the sentence. I see that your organization has gathered an impressive number of testimonials, and that these are both objective and qualitative. I didn’t see any lab results in the Consumer Affairs report, nor did I see any information naming potential allergens or toxins in the food, so I chose to mention that most of the evidence is qualitative (and wrote down the wrong word). I would be curious to see if anyone has found damaging substances in the food. It certainly sounds like something is very wrong.

  • Hi,

    I’m the Pet Specialty Communication Manager at Nutro. I think you raise some interesting points, though I’m not quite sure your analysis of our approach is necessarily complete.

    We’re certainly not ignorant of the importance of online conversation, or the fact that “sterile” communications within online communities is often unwelcome. On Twitter, for example, we have three employees who represent Nutro, clearly disclosed as such, who addressed the concerns of those who posted the Consumer Affairs piece and/or had questions about the article. We also have employees on other sites who make themselves available to those communities.

    A YouTube video is an interesting approach — it certainly worked for the likes of JetBlue, for example — but we wanted to focus our efforts on the places where the dialogue appeared to be taking place.

    Also, we do understand and sympathize with owners who have lost their pet, and we ensure that our food meets all FDA, USDA and AAFCO standards. However, we do not sympathize with outlets who are not reporting the facts. Note: The FDA has confirmed that Nutro is not under investigation. More here: http://www.wxyz.com/news/local/story/FDA-No-Investigation-into-NUTRO-Pet-Food/hOoE48nKOkORqDNodwN3EQ.cspx.

    Monica Barrett

  • marcia williams

    I guess that your Nutro pet food meets all FDA, USDA and AAFCO standards is irrelivant to the 600+ consumers who have had sick or dying pets. Something is very wrong. Our vet bills, soiled carpets and poor, poor lethargic pets prove it.
    I am ammazed at all the testimonials I have read since discovering this. Now I know what has happened to my own 2-1/2 year old dachshund.
    Shame on the Nutro company for not stopping manufacture and shipment of all their food until this is cleared up. Most people treasure their pets as I do.

  • Drea

    Monica,

    Thanks for your input. I see that the FDA put an official statement on its website negating the investigation, so I revised the article to indicate a rumor component. I’m not sure what kinds of legal implications Mars needs to consider in a situation like this one, but after seeing other companies’ responses (Domino’s response to a recent YouTube video of dirty employees stands out), I maintain that the language on Nutro’s site sounds sterile. Consumer Affairs has convincing evidence that something is not right. Mars has science, but appears to lack sympathy. I think that Mars could handle the situation in a more accommodating, consumer-friendly manner, especially since pets are involved. Other companies have done this in the past–Kryptonite, a bike-lock maker, comes to mind. When someone discovered it’s possible to open a U-lock with a Bic pen, the company invented a new lock in one week, then sent concerned U-lock owners the new model for free. As a result, the company now has an ultra-loyal following. I acknowledge that Mars claims there’s nothing wrong, so the situation is slightly different, but the volume of evidence indicates that a more hands-on approach would help. (I also have trouble seeing Consumer Affairs’ impetus to lie: http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2009/04/nutro_foia03.html. Can anyone reveal that to me?)

  • jarin

    I was feeding nutro large breed. Have been feeding it for a couple of years now. Just recently my dog began vommitting bile occasionaly(1-2x wk) This last weekend she vommited solid food twice after she had just eaten. I am taking her off the food.

  • Tina

    Look into a company called Natura Pet, http://www.naturapet.com They are the makers of: EVO, Innova, California Natural, Healthwise and Karma. They make their own food in their own plant, use human grade ingredients, no by-products, fractional grains, chemicals etc…They also have a promise of Zero ingredients from China!!! AND when all the recalls were rampant amoung so many pet foods, Natura NEVER had any product recalled.

    We used Nutro Lamb & Rice for years but now feed the California Natural Chicken & Rice. Our dog has soft fur for the first time, more energy and we don’t even have to clean the nasty gunk he got in his ears. California Natural is their “hypo-allegenic” formula.

  • Judy West

    We just put our dog Max to sleep due to bleeding in his chest cavity and abdomen. The emergency vet asked us if he
    had gotten into poison. He had eaten Nutro canned food for quite some time, but in the last 6 months experienced lethargy, excessive thirst, and a bout of pancreatitis. We tried to vary his food, so he had days where he seemed fine He had a good check-up 10 days ago, but had a number of days since then where he was listless and uninterested in his usual activities. The day before we had to put him to sleep,he did not want to eat the canned NUTRO lamb and rice food, so we gave him some NUTRO small bags of wet food. He was panting excessively and very thirsty. By the time, the vets saw him, he had so much internal bleeding that they told us there was no hope. They suspected hemangiosarcoma-cancer, but said the only other thing that caused these symptoms was rat posion. Now ,after reading so many other stories from pet owners who fed NUTRO to their dogs I really believe that our dog, Max died from his food.

  • Dear Monica,

    I used to work for Nutro as Pet Nutrition Specialist and I resigned last year as a result of complaints I was hearing in the stores and NOT just on the consumer affairs website. I had a woman scream at me in Petsmart that our food sickened her puppy. And still, I didn’t know about the website until after six months of complaints heard in my area stores after the website had apparently started logging them. I still didn’t know until May 2008 when one of my former customers brought it to my attention. I went to the website and my jaw hit the floor. Identical complaints to the ones I heard in teh store. My concerns were blown off and all I ever got was “Just enforce to the customer our quality control procedures.” That doesn’t help when you have an irate customer telling you the dog died the night before after eating Nutro Natural Choice Lamb and Rice small bites due to multisystem organ failure. There is nothing you can say to comfort them. After the March 2007 pet food recall when my cats got sickened, did I receive any reimbursement from Nutro for their illness? or even a phone call to check on them? NO WAY. I heard nothing. Then in May 2008 when I resigned, one of my dogs was guzzling water and not looking or acting right. Took him to the vet and we had elevated BUN and CREAT and he was headed to kidney failure. What was he eating? Nutro Lamb and Rice Natural Choice. What treats did he get? Nutro treats. Nothing else. Did I hear anything from Nutro? and being an employee? NO. And, I don’t feed junk treats to my dogs, no rawhide, none of that. I used to believe in Nutro but after the MARS buyout, my confidence went down the toilet.
    I really would like to see Nutro go back to being on its own as a stand alone company without MARS PetCare. And No, I do not believe this is a ploy by a competitor to discredit Nutro. None of the upset customers I talked to were employees of another pet food company.
    I also hope that this comes to resolution very soon and we find out one way or another what happened. I also believe that because this food is mass produced and sits on trucks for a long time and in warehouses are you investigating the storage facilities and trucks that carry Nutro? They could be using pesticides, spilling antifreeze or other issues.

  • Mary

    Pet owners want real data, but pet food companies treat them like MORONS.

    Pet owners want real data, and a proper dialog with pet food companies.

    For example, what are target formulation levels for zinc in XYZ food? What levels of zinc were found in the the pre-mix? By how much did zinc levels exceed AAFCO standards? Why did your advertised QA program fail to detect a
    simple error?

    Please post those questions and answers on your website.

    Pet food companies refuse to answer real questions. Their only response is that the food is safe.

    It’s not. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be 800 (or so) complaints on Consumer Affairs website.

    Last year PFPSA (Pet Food Products Safety Alliance) found excess zinc levels in dog food. The company (Nutro) refused to explain why pet owner’s interpretation of the data was incorrect.

    “That’s wrong” is not a proper explanation, and “it’s safe” is not a proper Quality Assurance protocol.

    Pet owners aren’t MORONS, and they’re fed up with burying pets because of pet food companies’ arrogance.

  • Petlover in NE

    Until Nutro posts actual lab tests on the dog and cat food, anything else is just PR garbage…If they actually wanted to regain trust from ALOT of pet owners, they would! I want to see the current lab tests in this new cat food recall…but I guess I will have to wait until my own food results get back..and I bought the recalled food after the recall announced on 5/21/09…If you ask why the media also started posting the recall again this week as if it just happened…It is because a cat owner whose cat died in the 2007 recall spent hours on the phone this past week to as many media outlets she knew…and they listened to her…Too bad Nutro did not put in the same effort..

  • Rocky

    LOL, maybe they should separate marketing from customer service. Customers don’t want marketing BS, they want polite SERVICE. Mostly, they don’t want to worry about every bag of food they use.

    Here’s a perfect example of the problem. I ask you, is this BS?

    Hi,

    I’m the Pet Specialty Communication Manager at Nutro. I think you raise some interesting points, though I’m not quite sure your analysis of our approach is necessarily complete.

    We’re certainly not ignorant of the importance of online conversation, or the fact that “sterile” communications within online communities is often unwelcome. On Twitter, for example, we have three employees who represent Nutro, clearly disclosed as such, who addressed the concerns of those who posted the Consumer Affairs piece and/or had questions about the article. We also have employees on other sites who make themselves available to those communities.

    A YouTube video is an interesting approach — it certainly worked for the likes of JetBlue, for example — but we wanted to focus our efforts on the places where the dialogue appeared to be taking place.

    Also, we do understand and sympathize with owners who have lost their pet, and we ensure that our food meets all FDA, USDA and AAFCO standards. However, we do not sympathize with outlets who are not reporting the facts. Note: The FDA has confirmed that Nutro is not under investigation. More here: http://www.wxyz.com/news/local/story/FDA-No-Investigation-into-NUTRO-Pet-Food/hOoE48nKOkORqDNodwN3EQ.cspx.

    Monica Barrett

  • Mary

    Monica uses 3 I’s in the first paragraph.

    The use of “I’s”, “certainly”, and “however” makes it impossible for the reader to believe “understand” and “sympathize”.

    And if the food had been correctly made, “outlets” wouldn’t be an issue.

    This is really, really bad, IMO.

  • Petlover in NE

    Dear Monica, You stress the one news story that says no FDA investigation …well I guess if there was one…this pre-mix might have been found months earlier…Oh, I mean 2 premixes, not one !

  • LoveAnimals

    “Pet owners want real data, but pet food companies treat them like MORONS.”…….ain’t that the truth, Mary!

    I guess I’ll never understand why a company who makes food for animals & claims to care about their health & welfare can blow off 800 or so posts on the internet about sick or dead pets.

    I’d like to know how many calls have been logged in at Nutro’s customer service (they need another name because it’s certainly not a service to their customers)……on their little written script, they are to say “you are the first complaint we’ve had about Nutro pet food”. GMAFB! This has gone on for years. Just how stupid do you think pet parents are?

    Guess you’re finding that out, huh?

  • Rocky

    PFPSA, recently tested the Nutro recall food and found the zinc level to be 2100 ppm.

    PFPSA is the group that found high zinc in Nutro dog food in 2008, but was ignored by Nutro and FDA.

    Why pet owners must do the job of both Nutro and the FDA job is beyond me.

    http://www.pfpsa.org/news.html

  • Petlover in NE

    Since pet owners want real data I guess it is us petowners who have to chase it down..or test our own recalled food… wonder Monica has to say about that real data now… Glad Nutro let this 2100ppm zinc cat food on the shelves for 6months…real good QC huh Monica???

  • Louie

    Here’s what is wrong:

    Wall Street has the SEC, and the pet food industry has the FDA.

    Sounds right to me.

  • lesliek

    Complaints are over 900 now on http://www.consumeraffairs . If anyone has checked twitter,all the Nutro reps do is post smileys. Have a rainbow day ! is their common tweet. Sorry but rainbows don’t help poisoned animals. I’d rather see them spend the $ on quality ingredients & processing & testing. A better cs dept wouldn’t hurt either.

  • Richard

    I have read alot of these commits, i can see many pet owners
    are worried about their pets which are like family members to most. But getting important information from a chat room is not really reliable, because people can say what ever they what with out prove. Sometime is best for one to look into a problem and find the right answer.

    Just because a company had a problem with one of their product, does not mean that a company is not concern about their consumers. One thing we know is that when the company notice a problem with their product, all the effected products were recalled. This shows me a business that is concern about their consumer as well as the pets that use their product. Mistakes happen, and how we react is what counts. What a person says on a chat room can make or break a business. So we must be careful of what we say and how we express ourselves. And remember that some people would say negative thing about a company, so that people stop buying one brand and change to another.

    I thank everyone for their time

  • corby

    We started buying Nutro large breed puppy formula when our Newfoundland arrived. She is now 6 months old and has started vomiting bile from time to time. Our 10 year old lab and 2 year old pom have to be chased out of the puppies dish and now all 3 have the same problem. With this much discussion it would seem foolish to continue feeding the Nutro product. Mabey the product is safe but the result if it isnt is to terrible to take the risc. I just purchased a bag today. I hope the store will accept a return.

  • Tracy

    I have no idea what to believe. I found this chat after coming back from the vet’s office. Emma one of our mix breed dogs who was 9 years old died in August of Hemangiosarcoma. Riley our other mixed breed dog of almost 10 (he is actually the same age as Emma was) was just diagnosed with the same disease this afternoon. These dogs were not blood related. The only common link is Nutro Lamb and Rice that they have both been on their entire lives. Never had cheap treats, rawhides, etc. Hard to think that this is coincidence.

  • Judy West

    Tracy: Your story is exactly like mine. My dog, Max, went from a normal check-up to 10 days later having a diagnosis of hemangiosarcoma or posioning. We had to put him to sleep.
    He ate mostly Nutro Lamb and Rice wet food along with other high quality foods for variety.I, too, believe that there is no coincidence here.

  • John

    I have been feeding my dogs, Chrissy and Al, Staffordshire Terriers, Dick Van Patton for years. The Allergy Lamb and brown rice formula, and their beef roll. Chrissy has started gaining ALOT of weight lately, so I decided to try something new on her, Al is fine. Got a bag of Evo diet, (I used to feed them only Evo Red Meat, but at 90 bucks a bag, it got too expensive, GREAT food however, no affilaition), anyway, just today, with the Evo dry food, I got three can of the Nutro Chicken and rice weight management formula to mix in for Chrissy, and decided to check the web before feeding her. Thank God I did!
    The Nutro is going back to Centinella Feed tommorrow!
    And as I read along, I recalled reading somewhere a couple of years ago that Nutro was a great Co., w/ an outstanding rep., but then Mars “Acquired” them, and they became another “McDonalds for pets”, like Iams and many other who began with integrity, but were bought out by greedy Co’s banking on the rep. who then changed the ingrediants to include primarily cheap chinese crap, rice meal and the like, shipped here by the Mega-Ton on enormous tankers.
    Our pets are our children. And anyone who see’s it differant has no business making and selling us food for them. It’s tough knowing who to trust, and for its many ill’s, I thank god for the internet when it comes to us reaching each other and sounding these compassionate alarms. I say if the business is really, really big and diversified, then chances are its not too good. Seems like these days, in all things, only the little guys can be trusted. JMHO.
    John L.
    Santa Monica, Ca.

  • Louie

    Looks like MORE QUALITY PROBLEMS WITH NUTRO. Responding to a Pet Owner’s concern, PFPSA tested Nutro Chicken Meal and Chicken cat food and found high levels of Vit D.

    Lab analysis reveal the food contained 219,000 IU/kg of Vit D (DMB).

    See May 4, 2010 news at http://www.pfpsa.org/news.html

  • Nutro shoots itself in the foot by denying the undeniable. Nutro claims its food is safe and meets AAFCO standards. It has claimed it tests its ingredients and finshed products to ensure this so. The plain facts, as viewed objectively by any reasonable person, puts the lie to Nutro claims.

    Fully half its dry cat food line contained unsafe levels of zinc, and/or dangerously low levels of potassium, during a four month production run. Such reckless manufacturing would be flat out impossible with even the most bare bones quality control. A basic, widely available mineral analysis, which costs on the order of $30, would easily have picked up the mineral premix problems, either on the front or back end of production.

    The tests we’ve ordered on Nutro products show a consistency of formulation that is slipshod at best, and inherently deadly at its worst. 2100 ppm zinc DOES NOT conform to AAFCO standards. 219,000 IU/kg Vitamin D DOES NOT conform to AAFCO standards.

    By all accounts, Nutro’s quality of customer care is nothing short of disgraceful. The approach seems to be along the lines of, so sorry our food killed your pet, here’s a coupon for a free shovel.

    Nutro is much like the reality cop shows. When the bad guy is busted cold, the punchline is always, “Ah din’t do nuthin'”. It doesn’t sound any better coming from a CEO than it does coming from some lowlife street thug.

  • Zach

    Nutro customer service is for the birds… Use a competitor’s brand, they might return emails.