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Pet food company Nutro responds to assertions of dangerous zinc levels in recalled cat food

June 19, 2009 |  9:46 pm


Late last month, pet food company Nutro announced a recall of dry cat food sold in the U.S. and 10 other countries.  The company told consumers to return dry Nutro cat food with a "best if used by" date falling between May 12, 2010, and Aug. 22, 2010, to the store where it was purchased, citing an error from a premix supplier. 

"One premix contained excessive levels of zinc and under-supplemented potassium. The second premix under-supplemented potassium," read a statement posted on Nutro's website.  The company told cat owners to watch out for symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, reduced appetite or refusal to eat, and weight loss in cats that had eaten the affected food.  Still, it insisted it had received no consumer complaints and, instead, had issued the recall out of an abundance of caution.

The assertion that Nutro had received no complaints "outraged pet owners nationwide, who have told ConsumerAffairs.com for the past two years that their cats and dogs have experienced" the symptoms noted by Nutro, Lisa Wade McCormick of ConsumerAffairs.com wrote.  McCormick alleged that the website had received more than 800 complaints from pet owners who said their dogs and cats had experienced diarrhea and vomiting after eating Nutro food. 

Despite some confusion around the Web, Nutro is not under investigation by the FDA.  Even so, a few of our readers echoed the doubts expressed by ConsumerAffairs.com in the wake of the recall.  "My thirteen year-old cat is in the hospital with elevated liver enzymes and pancreatitis after eating from a bag of Nutro food with a best buy date of August 5, 2010," C.W. wrote earlier this month. "Before Sunday he was in perfect health, with a clear blood work-up in March."

Just a few days ago, reader Nathan chimed in.  "After eating the affected Nutro food my cat developed many of the symptoms associated with the mineral imbalances and spent an expensive weekend in emergency care," said Nathan.  "The cat stopped eating Nutro after coming home and has since recovered."

And Thursday, ConsumerAffairs.com had more to say on the matter.  McCormick wrote that a group called the Pet Food Products Safety Alliance had hired a Washington, D.C., diagnostic lab to test a sample of the recalled food.  "A receipt provided with the food we tested showed this bag was purchased a day after the recall was announced," according to the alliance.  "It is our understanding the store had not been informed there was a problem with the food." 

The test results showed a zinc level of 2,100 parts per million, the safety alliance said.  From ConsumerAffairs.com:

"The concentration of zinc identified in this report of 2100 ppm is very high," said Dr. Stephen Hansen, a veterinary toxicologist and senior vice-president of Animal Health for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). "That zinc level jumps off the page. It is awfully high and does concern us. It’s certainly gotten our attention."

Do those high levels of zinc pose health problems for cats?

"The problem in this case is that we believe no one actually knows (or at least has published) the effects of 2100 ppm dietary zinc long-term in cats," Dr. Hansen said. "Typically, cats are more tolerant of high zinc than other species, including dogs and humans.

"But it’s certainly possible that those levels of zinc would likely cause health problems in cats that could involve significant intestinal upset and liver and kidney damage."

Nutro responded to the concerns raised by the sky-high levels of zinc in an email today. 

"The lot of recalled product analyzed by pfpsa.org, as well as some of the other recalled product lots is higher than the maximum zinc levels as outlined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO)," Nutro manager Monica Barrett wrote. 

But, Barrett said, there's a general lack of scientific knowledge about the levels of zinc and other nutrients that are safe for cats.  "Much of the data is extrapolated from other species, and values used in calculating nutritional profiles are based on very limited and old data. As quoted in the National Research Council (NRC) 2006 publication, ‘There are no reports on adverse effects of excess zinc consumption by cats.’

"There are a few studies feeding high levels of zinc to cats that have shown high zinc serum levels in the blood, but no clinical problems resulted," Barrett continued. "High zinc levels can cause a secondary deficiency in copper and other microminerals.  Because of the lack of data on zinc levels for cats, and the potential for causing other mineral deficiencies, we decided to take the measures we did" in issuing the recall.

Barrett insisted that Nutro is "working diligently and on a case-by-case basis with consumers that have contacted us" and that the company's top priority is the health and safety of the animals that consume its products.

That statement doesn't necessarily jibe with the experience of a cat owner identified as Stacy M., who told ConsumerAffairs.com that she called Nutro after hearing of the recall, when her veterinarian had been unable to pinpoint the cause of her cat's odd symptoms.  "And I did not get a response from them for a couple of weeks," Stacy M. said.

But, according to the Nutro website's FAQs section, you shouldn't believe everything you read.  "Many blogs and Internet sites can be a repository for misinformation and hearsay regarding many topics," the website notes. 

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Bags of Nutro Natural Choice Complete Care dry cat food are displayed at a Northern California pet store.  Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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