FDA warns Darwin’s in follow-up to sick cat complaint

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a stern warning to Arrow Reliance Inc. (doing business as Darwin’s Natural Pet Products), following what the agency referred to as an “inadequate” response to violations of the Food Drug and Cosmetics Act (FD&C Act) documented during an August-September 2022 inspection.

The inspection was carried out in response to a consumer complaint received by the FDA, in which the consumer reported that a Darwin’s cat food had caused illness in three kittens. The consumer provided documentation that a stool sample from one of the kittens tested positive for Salmonella.


On July 8, 2022, the FDA was contacted by a consumer who complained that Darwin’s cat food had made her three kittens ill.

The FDA collected unopened packages of the suspect food from the consumer and found Salmonella in two samples.

With the Salmonella-positive results in hand, the FDA urged Darwin’s to initiate a recall of the contaminated products.

The company refused, and the FDA advised Darwin’s that the agency would issue a public caution.

On July 29, 2022, Darwin’s filed a request in federal court for a temporary restraining order to prevent the FDA from releasing information about the contaminated products to the public.

The court rejected the company’s request, and on August 5, 2022, the FDA finally was able to issue a caution to pet owners, advising them not to feed certain Darwin’s cat foods to their pets due to Salmonella contamination.

On August 23, 2022, the FDA began an inspection of Darwin’s manufacturing facility and, on September 30, 2022, handed a completed list of Inspectional Observations (FDA Form 483) to the company.

The company’s Director of Quality replied to the list of observations on October 14th.

What Darwin’s claims

Darwin’s claims that its Salmonella-contaminated raw pet foods are not adulterated, because (a) the microbe is not an “added substance,” and (b) it is up to the FDA to demonstrate that the Salmonella is present at a level that makes it “ordinarily injurious” to the intended consumer.

In its filing for the temporary restraining order, the company made reference to USDA enforcement policies for Salmonella and questioned why it should be acceptable for the pathogen to be present in raw poultry, beef and other meats for human consumption, but not in pet food.

Unresolved issues

1. Adulterated Animal Food

The FDA collected and analyzed unopened samples from the complainant.

One of the samples contained Salmonella Typhimurium, a serotype well known to cause both human and animal illness.

A second sample contained both Salmonella Typhimurium and Salmonella Kentucky, another serotype known to cause disease.

A third sample collected during the inspection of Darwin’s manufacturing facility also yielded Salmonella Typhimurium.

Because Salmonella can cause serious–sometimes fatal–illness in humans and in animals, the FDA considers the presence of the microbe at any level to be hazardous if the food is meant to be consumed without cooking.

Therefore, the three lots of Salmonella-contaminated cat food were adulterated within the meaning of the FD&C Act, according to the Warning Letter.

2. Use of an Unapproved Food Additive

In 2021, the FDA expressed its concern to Darwin’s regarding the company’s use of peroxyacetic acid (PAA) as an additive to control pathogens in its raw pet foods, as the chemical was not “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for the intended use.

During the 2022 inspection, the FDA observed that PAA was still being added to the pet foods, and that the company had increased the level of PAA to a concentration significantly higher than the recognized maximum safe level for its use in any food.

The FDA was unable to find any scientific data to indicate that the concentration of PAA incorporated into Darwin’s pet foods was safe for dogs or cats to consume.

The agency also reviewed documentation of a third-party lab study, undertaken on Darwin’s behalf, to validate the ability of PAA to control pathogens in the company’s raw pet foods. The FDA concluded that the level of pathogen control demonstrated during the study was inadequate to ensure a pathogen-free state in the company’s finished products.

3. Food Facility Registration

Under the FD&C Act, Darwin’s is required to register with the FDA as a “food facility.”

The company has long insisted that it supplies its products directly to customers and, as a “retail food establishment,” is exempt from this mandate.

However, Darwin’s ships the majority of its products to customers through third-party warehouses rather than directly from its manufacturing facility. Therefore, the company does not meet the definition of “retail food establishment” under the FD&C Act.

What happens next?

The company was given fifteen (15) working days to respond to the issues raised in the Warning Letter.

In the absence of a satisfactory response, the FDA may undertake legal action, including the possibility of seizure of products and/or seeking an injunction against the company.

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Raw pet food producer hit with FDA Warning Letter

G & C Raw, LLC (G & C) needs to clean up its act according to a December 12, 2019 Warning Letter from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

G & C is a manufacturer of raw pet food and is based in Versailles, Ohio.

FDA inspected the G & C manufacturing facility in April and May 2019, and found several instances of insanitary practices, potential for cross-contamination, inappropriate and uncontrolled thawing conditions for frozen ingredients, and inadequate preventative controls.

Some of the practices and deficiencies highlighted in the Warning Letter include:
1. Frozen beef hearts were set out at room temperature to thaw on April 22nd, and remained at room temperature until April 24th, when they were used in the manufacture of raw Beef Veggie and Fruit Dog Food. This extended exposure to room temperature would have allowed bacteria to proliferate in the raw beef hearts.
2. An employee wearing gloves lifted a barrelG that had been resting on the floor, grabbing the bottom of the barrel with one gloved hand. Without changing to a fresh pair of gloves, that employee then used both hands to handle the raw meat ingredients, potentially transfering contaminants from the floor to the ingredients
3. An employee was observed using a cell phone while weighing open containers of raw Beef Veggie and Fruit Dog Food. The employee continued to handle the raw dog food without changing to a fresh pair of gloves.
4. An employee used a hose connected to a processing area sink to wash down a van in the parking lot, then returned the hose to the processing area for inside use.
5. Two finished product samples collected during the inspection were found to contain Listeria monocytogenes, a human and animal pathogen. One environmental sample contained Listeria grayi and Listeria innocua, non-pathogenic species that are indicators of insanitary conditions.

In addition to the problems identified during the 2019 inspection, the Warning Letter also noted that G & C pet foods analyzed in 2018 by the Ohio Department of Agriculture were found to contain Listeria monocytogenes in one instance, and Salmonella in another.

While the contaminated products were recalled by the company, FDA considered this an indication of an ongoing problem.

The FoodBugLady weighs in

Some pet food bloggers, and many consumers, are inclined to give raw pet food manufacturers the benefit of the doubt whenever a product recall is announced or an enforcement action is undertaken against such a company by FDA.

“FDA is discriminating against raw pet food,” and “FDA is discriminating against small companies who can’t fight back,” are two rallying cries I have seen in recent years.

In my opinion and experience, this is nonsense.

Conditions such as those described in the Warning Letter issued to G & C would not be tolerated in the manufacture of human food, regardless of the size of the company. Equally, they should not be tolerated in the manufacture of pet food, regardless of whether the finished product is raw, canned, or kibble.

Insanitary practices are insanitary practices, no matter where they occur or by whom they are perpetrated. There is no excuse for sloppy handling, poor supervision of employees, or unsafe holding temperatures.

Anyone who undertakes to produce a commercial food for human or for animal use must bear full responsibility for the safety of the finished products.

Consumers should – and must – demand no less.

Valley Proteins receives FDA Warning Letter one year after pentobarbital found

Valley Proteins, Inc., a renderer located in Winchester, Virginia, was issued a Warning Letter from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on November 18, 2019, one year almost to the day after FDA found pentobarbital in a sample of the company’s “animal fat product.”

The Warning Letter cited several violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act revealed during the course of FDA inspections carried out in February 2019 and April 2019.

The animal fat product was adulterated due to the presence of pentobarbital

According to the Warning Letter, FDA advised Valley Proteins on December 18, 2018 that the agency had found pentobarbital in a sample of the Company’s animal fat product.

Despite the requirements spelled out in the Company’s formal Recall Plan, Valley Proteins “…did not take immediate action to notify customers or recall the product…”

On four separate occasions in February and in April 2019, FDA inquired as to whether the Company planned to recall the contaminated product. Valley Proteins declined to initiate a recall and refused to supply FDA with requested information regarding the amount of potentially affected product that was distributed by the Company before it learned of the pentobarbital contamination.

In response to FDA’s finding, Valley Proteins asserted that pentobarbital is an “unavoidable contaminant not known to present a health hazard,” an assertion strongly refuted by FDA in its Warning Letter, which included the following statement:

Adulteration of animal food with pentobarbital is not unavoidable. It is your responsibility to prevent adulteration of animal food with unsafe new animal drugs by ensuring that you are not receiving ingredients from your suppliers that contain unsafe new animal drugs or by developing methods to ensure that materials you receive containing unsafe new animal drugs are segregated and not used for animal food.”

The animal fat product was adulterated due to Animal Food Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls (PC) violations

Specifically, Valley Proteins did not “…identify and evaluate hazards that may be specific to the source of [the] raw material, which included carcasses of animals euthanized with pentobarbital” in that the Company’s Hazard Analysis “…did not list Pentobarbital as a known and reasonably foreseeable hazard.” 

Valley Proteins began cleaning operations and started testing for pentobarbital in January 2019. However, it did not provide FDA with any indications as to how it planned to account for adulterated product that was distributed prior to starting its cleaning and testing program.

In fact, the Company continues to assert that it has no legal requirement to recall any products due to pentobarbital contamination.

In an update to its Hazard Analysis documentation, the Company states that it will no longer accept or process “dead stock” (i.e., euthanized animals). However, in a letter to its customers, the Company indicates that it “…will accept euthanized animals for collection and disposal, but chemically euthanized animals will not be rendered.”

FDA has requested, but has not yet received, information as to how Valley Proteins proposes to collect and dispose of euthanized animals.

Microbial hazards

FDA also highlighted concerns regarding the Company’s process control to prevent microbial hazards.

1. Bills of Lading for some products should have – but did not – including the statement, “not processed to control microbial hazards.”
2. The Company’s process controls lacked adequate parameters for controlling some microbial hazards, including Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes.
3. The process control parameters provided to FDA by the Company did not match the parameters as determined in the scientific study presented to validate those process controls.

Where did the adulterated animal fat go?

According to a spokesperson for FDA, the Company claims that none of the adulterated animal fat was distributed to pet food manufacturers. However, the firm did not provide any documentation to support its assertion.

The Warning Letter describes the adulterated sample as having been taken from a finished fat tank “…used to store animal fat distributed for use in animal food.” This could refer to food for livestock, including poultry, cattle, etc.

FDA is at risk of becoming a paper tiger

Setting aside the specific violations cited in this Warning Letter, Valley Proteins is just the latest in a string of companies that has refused an FDA request for a product recall, for documentation, or for some other aspect of cooperation in an investigation.

In recent months, we have seen at least two other instances of non-cooperation, even in the face of a direct risk to the health of consumers or their companion animals.

Lystn, LLC (Answers Pet Food) initiated a lawsuit against FDA, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the Colorado Department of Agriculture, among others, rather than agree to a recall of its contaminated raw pet food products.
FDA was forced to take the extreme step of suspending facility registration of Topway Enterprises Inc. (a Texas-based seafood producer), citing “…an unwillingness and disregard by the company to cease operations and correct severe violations at their facility.”

These two examples are only the tip of the iceberg. It is not uncommon for company officials to decline FDA inspectors access to consumer complaint records, product formulations, and other information that inspectors often need to conduct their oversight. It is not unknown for a company to deny an inspector permission to document observations by photography, and later dispute the accuracy of the inspector’s written observations.

FDA’s remedies in the face of non-cooperation are limited. In theory, FDA is empowered under existing law to demand full access to these records. In practice, however, there is little an FDA inspector can do to enforce the agency’s authority other than by suspending the inspection and applying for a court order.

Similarly, FDA’s mandatory recall authority is a clumsy and slow instrument of last resort. The mandatory notification and appeal process would render moot an eventual mandatory recall of a perishable product. FDA’s best tool is to issue a Public Health Alert, warning consumers of the hazard posed by the offending firm’s products.

It’s time for a more assertive FDA stance

A driver caught for speeding is obliged by law to produce relevant documentation (driver license, vehicle registration and proof or insurance) upon request. Declining such a request lands the driver in even hotter water than before. Nor can the driver fight the charge by claiming that a speed limit is arbitrary and thus may be ignored.

Perhaps it’s time for FDA to arm its inspectors with the appropriate warrant or court order at the start of an inspection, especially in the case of a company with a history of prior non-cooperation.

Perhaps it’s time for an amendment to the Food Safety Modernization Act. One that will grant FDA the authority to suspend a company’s operations in the event of non-cooperation with a lawful inspection.