Food Safety News: JBS knowingly distributed products containing euthanasia drug

By Phyllis Entis on May 1, 2019

JBS Souderton Inc. continued to distribute pentobarbital-adulterated products to customers even after receiving formal notification of pentobarbital contamination, according to a warning letter issued on April 23 by the Food and Drug Administration.

The warning letter to JBS Souderton Inc. which does business as MOPAC was sent more than one year after pentobarbital was first discovered in beef tallow from the company’s Souderton, PA, facility.

Pentobarbital is a barbiturate used by veterinarians to euthanize animals, including companion animals, horses and cattle. According to the FDA, pet foods containing even a trace amount of pentobarbital are considered adulterated. It is against federal law to release “adulterated” products into the stream of commerce.

JBS was the supplier of beef tallow to Big Heart Pet Brands Inc. and to Champion PetFoods, among others.

Big Heart is a wholly owned subsidiary of The J.M. Smucker Company Inc. Champion is a Canadian pet food company whose U.S. production facility is in Auburn, KY. It manufactures Acana and Orijen brands of dry dog food.

In February 2018, a media outlet reported having found pentobarbital in several samples of Gravy Train canned, wet dog food. Smucker initiated a product withdrawal of the implicated products pending the outcome of its internal investigation. 

Concurrently, FDA alerted pet owners about the possible presence of pentobarbital in the several dog food brands, including Gravy Train, Kibbles ’N Bits, Ol’ Roy and Skippy.

Smucker converted its withdrawal into a full-blown recall once company officials had confirmation of the presence of pentobarbital in its finished product and in samples of beef tallow supplied by JBS.

As part of its investigation into the Big Heart, FDA and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture conducted a joint inspection of JBS beginning March 13, 2018.

According to the warning letter, FDA found pentobarbital in four out of nine samples collected at the JBS facility. Upon further analysis, three of the samples were found to contain pentobarbital at levels ranging from 61.8 +/-19 to 277 +/-70 nanograms per gram (ng/g), well above the minimum detection concentration of 4 ng/g.

The four pentobarbital-contaminated products were delivered to customers from November 2017 through March 2018.

Samples collected from JBS and from its customers’ facilities and analyzed by Pennsylvania officials found levels of pentobarbital as high as 680 ng/g.

The list of Inspectional “Observations” in the FDA’s Form 483, provided to JBS management on Oct. 17, 2018, contained two items:

  1. JBS did not visually verify loads of raw materials with what the hauler stated that they brought in. This led to tallow, manufactured at [the JBS] facility, to be adulterated with pentobarbital.
  2. JBS did not have an effective system for evaluating incoming raw materials to ensure that these ingredients are suitable for use in human products and animal feeds.

JBS officials informed the FDA on April 17, 2018, that the company had completed cleaning all of its conveyances, conduits, cookers and centrifuges, and some of its storage tanks to remove any pentobarbital-contaminated product. In a May 30, 2018, letter, JBS management indicated the company would complete the cleaning process within an additional 30 days.

The company officials also reported having identified and talked with all of its suppliers that may have presented a risk for entry of euthanized animals into the rendering plant, and obtained a guarantee from each supplier that they would not provide euthanized animals. JBS also indicated it would continue to conduct random tests of tallow products for pentobarbital.

On July 27, 2018, the FDA took a follow-up sample from one of the JBS storage tanks. Upon analysis, the sample was found to contain trace amounts of pentobarbital.

On Aug. 8, 2018, the FDA inquired what actions JBS planned to take in response to the pentobarbital finding. 

The company declined to recall the product. Instead, JBS offered to ask animal food producing customers that received animal food products to remove any products deemed positive for pentobarbital and to have their tanks cleaned.

JBS described its product withdrawals and attempted withdrawals of pentobarbital-contaminated product from its customers in a Nov. 26, 2018, letter to the FDA. 

In its warning letter, the FDA noted that it was unable to asses the effectiveness of the corrective actions in the absence of a voluntary recall or other documentation demonstrating all contaminated products were removed from the marketplace.

As reported by Food Safety News in November 2018, Champion PetFoods retrieved pet foods the contaminated tallow from its third-party distributors. The company declined to initiate a retail-level recall, even though some of the product had reached the store/consumer level. The refusal was based on laboratory test results on retained samples of those finished products that did not reveal pentobarbital.

JBS was given fifteen working days to notify the FDA in writing of the specific steps it has taken to correct the violations listed in the warning letter, or to provide a time frame within which the corrections will be completed.

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