Hi, everyone. I am Lisa Fletcher, an investigative reporter for ABC 7 in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year, I broke the story about the drug pentobarbital being found in some pet food. Pentobarbital is most commonly used to euthanize dogs, cats and some horses.

During our investigation, we worked with an analytical lab that specializes in testing food for contaminants. After months of tests and re-tests, one brand repeatedly came back positive for pentobarbital. That brand was Gravy Train, which is made by Big Heart Pet Foods and owned by Smucker’s.

Our story prompted an FDA investigation and resulted in more than 100 million cans of pet food being recalled. Ultimately, four brands made by Big Heart/Smuckers — Kibbles'n Bits, Gravy Train, Skippy and Ol' Roy — were pulled from shelves.

My proof.

I am excited to be here taking your questions today.

Ask me anything!

Comments: 1230 • Responses: 36  • Date: 

ddeo1769 karma

How does pentobarbital end up in pet food? I mean, what is the advantage for a pet food maker to allow this to happen? Cost savings in some way? Or, are they slowly trying to kill all of our pets?

ABC7NewsDC3051 karma

How does it end up in pet food? If you know the answer to that, please let me know! This is the million dollar question. We know from our experts that pentobarbital's primary use in the United States is to euthanize companion animals (dogs, cats and occasionally horses.) It's use is never permitted on any animal intended to be used for food in the human or animal food supply. One possibility for the contamination is that animals, killed with pentobarbital, are getting into the pet food supply chain. I suspect this is something that the FDA is looking into as part of its ongoing investigation that it launched when we announced our findings.

neugo912 karma

Follow up: Is it possible to DNA test the food? If some vet is selling euthanized animals to a rendering farm - and they are getting ground up and made into pet food, you'd find dog/cat/horse DNA where it shouldn't be...

ABC7NewsDC1145 karma

One of the tricky things about DNA is that it can be destroyed by heat...so just because something isn't found, doesn't necessarily mean it isn't there. And as far as I know, I don't think vets "sell" euthanized animals...I believe businesses have to pay rendering companies to pick up carcasses.

purplehazelaw510 karma

did you receive any pressure or threats from lobbyist or people from those corporations to stop your investigation?

ABC7NewsDC1203 karma

As an investigative reporter I've gotten used to companies trying to control the narrative. No surprise there. What I find most disturbing is not pressure - it's the company's unwillingness to sit down, talk about the situation and answer relevant questions. I see myself as a conduit to the public. You deserve answers. You deserve to know what's going on with the products you're trusting to feed your family and pets. You deserve far more than a well-crafted press release as the only means of communication from these companies. And my frustration with this goes far beyond industry. Government agencies often act with impunity in this regard. I cannot tell you how many times I have requested interviews with the FDA regarding this story and have been ignored or declined.

cahaseler423 karma

As a pet owner, what can we do to avoid stuff like this? Just hope for the best, and support our local journalists?

ABC7NewsDC455 karma

This is one of the things that's troubled me most since we embarked on this issue. It is so difficult for consumers to navigate - and avoid - potentially troubling ingredients. That's because the pet food companies are not required to have absolute transparency in labeling. For example: the ingredient deck may list things like "animal tallow" or "animal fat" or "meat by-products." While those items are truly in there, you (and I and most everyone else) has no idea what they're actually comprised of. One thing you can do, and it's by no means a sure-fire solution, but look for ingredients that mean something - not vague words. The USDA label on the can means that the contents are fit for human consumption. This is also a good indicator that you may be able to better trust the ingredients. As for me, I'm a big believer in making your own dog and cat food. It's easy, inexpensive and you know exactly what's in it. Our Digital Executive Producer will follow with a post to the 101 I did on making food. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Emerald_Flame404 karma


My dog almost died to this because her treats were affected and we had no idea until we had seen it in the news. We had a few grand in vet bills and no one could figure out what was wrong, but we threw the treats away and she started recovering quickly after that.

How did you stumble upon this story, and what kind of resources did you have to tap into to research it?

ABC7NewsDC252 karma

Thanks so much for your question. We are glad to hear your dog is doing better. Here's part of my answer to an earlier, similar question: " We knew a dog in Washington state died after eating a can of dog food laden with the euthanasia drug pentobarbital. I started doing some digging and found out that the FDA had identified pentobarbital in pet food back in the late '90's and early 2000's. Nothing had substantially changed in terms of oversight and regulations so I thought it made sense to do some more research. And as with so many stories, once you start pulling a thread, so much more is revealed."

kingshmiley94 karma

What originally motivated you to become an investigative reporter? Are there any specific pieces of investigative reporting that you feel particularly inspired your interest?

ABC7NewsDC158 karma

My grandma! She was a writer and one of the most curious people I've ever known. She always encouraged me to ask lots of questions (clearly something that's stuck with me!) and to always write...letters, stories, ideas....just write! As far as what inspires me -it's the notion of being a voice for the voiceless. So whether it's people or animals, my job allows me to shine light on issues that hopefully in the end will enlighten, help and protect folks.

ThrowAwayCaaount92 karma

How do you choose what story you're going to follow up on?

This particular one sounds so absurd that I can't imagine taking the time to follow up on it and yet here it is.

Were you at all skeptical? How did that process go?

ABC7NewsDC127 karma

I know it sounds a little cliche - but honestly - I go with my gut on how I choose a lot of stories. I'm sure you have that sense about things when something just doesn't sit right. We knew a dog in Washington state died after eating a can of dog food laden with the euthanasia drug pentobarbital. I started doing some digging and found out that the FDA had identified pentobarbital in pet food back in the late '90's and early 2000's. Nothing had substantially changed in terms of oversight and regulations so I thought it made sense to do some more research. And as with so many stories, once you start pulling a thread, so much more is revealed.

SereneRiverView53 karma

Were there any reports of dog deaths or illnesses, especially older dogs??

ABC7NewsDC64 karma

Since our story aired there have been unconfirmed reports from pet owners questioning their dog's health and an association with whatever food they might be feeding. The FDA investigation is ongoing and presumably sorting that out.

c_b0t25 karma

I read about this years ago in a book called "Food Pets Die For" which was originally published in 1997. Did that book factor into your investigation at all?

ABC7NewsDC25 karma

That book did not factor into my investigation. But I will say there have been a number of excellent books over the years that have explored the topic of pet food ingredients, raised important and relevant questions, and helped bring this discussion into the public sphere.

Duke_Paul24 karma

Hi Lisa!

Thanks for doing an AMA, especially on a topic so many people hold near and dear--our pets.

I'm curious, how did you come across this story? It's not exactly something I feel like one would notice normally. Second question: What is something you thought you knew, but later found out you were wrong about? (And no fair saying, "I thought my dog's food didn't contain pentobarbital but then found out that it did.)

Thanks again!

ABC7NewsDC35 karma

Hi Paul. I'm so grateful to be able to be in this forum and have folks interested in this topic!

This story evolved out of several stories I did in early 2017 on pet food/pet treat recalls and the death of a dog in Washington state after eating a can of pet food later discovered to contain pentobarbital. I just went with my gut -kept asking questions, making phone calls and contacting people who knew far more about the material than I did at the time.

As for the "thought you knew" question - I'm going to be a little vague because so many of my stories involve corporations...but not that long ago I was working on a story on an industry that seemed to being unfairly usurped by a tech start-up. The industry made a convincing argument and presented plenty of 'evidence' to support their position. The more I dug in, the more I realized that the story was far less clear than it seemed going into it. I have not yet untangled the threads.

nullmother14 karma

How did you become an investigative reporter and what is it like? It’s always a career that’s been really interesting to me

ABC7NewsDC18 karma

I was inspired to be a journalist by my grandmother - so my desire to do this job has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. This is a job that I feel as though I've been entrusted to have. I went to journalism school, got my first job in a tiny market in Bend, Oregon and just moved my way through various markets until landing at ABC News in 2007. I worked at various networks for 8 or 9 years before coming to ABC7 in DC.

ABC7NewsDC12 karma

OK, thank you everyone for all the great questions! We've been at it for a few hours, so we have to wrap up now. We hope you will keep an eye out for our future investigations.

If questions continue to pop up on this thread, we will try to answer as many as possible.

Thanks again for your participation!

King-Boss-Bob6 karma

How did you react when you found out about it?

ABC7NewsDC14 karma

Well, it validated my instincts on this story - so that was reaffirming. But obviously, I was not happy about it as a consumer. It's shocking to know that potentially dangerous ingredients can find their way into the foods you trust.

diff24 karma

Do other countries have the same issues with pet food ingredients as USA does?

Like I’m wondering if there is a “best country” to raise your pet in. If maybe there is something other countries do right that USA does wrong that could be fixed somehow.

ABC7NewsDC10 karma

I suspect there are countries that have more rigorous regulation of pet food than the united states, but I've largely confined my reporting of the story to the US. Sorry I can't give you a better answer on this one!

Fionzone3 karma

Do you have pets? If so, what food do they eat?

ABC7NewsDC7 karma

We have two rescue cats and a rescue beagle-mix. They are definitely part of our family! We make all of their food. We're posting a link so you can try making food for your pets. It's easy, economical and you know exactly what's in it!

nimbusdimbus3 karma

Where did you get that awesome flower dress in your proof picture? I’d like to get one for my daughter!

ABC7NewsDC5 karma

Author: Women on the Move

Ted Baker!

nekoexmachina3 karma

huh. Is there any cheap way that is available to a random person to test their dogfood for this chemicals?

ABC7NewsDC3 karma

We use specialized analytical labs to identify these specific ingredients. I'm not sure there's a good pathway for consumers to have their pet food tested.

Office_Zombie2 karma

Off topic questions:
Have you ever genuinely feared for your life while working on a story?
Have you ever had a story squashed by management?
Have you ever had to deal with news groupies? Or worse, stalkers?

ABC7NewsDC4 karma

Funny you should ask! I was just recounting this story to a friend not long ago...I was with my team in Mexico and we were doing undercover on a prescription-laundering scheme we believed was being used to funnel steroids to high school athletes. Somehow the guy at the Mexico pharmacy made us and pulled a gun. We grabbed all our gear and we took off running.

I've never had a story squashed by management.

I've had a few stalkers - nothing crazy. Thankfully.

seniorfoggy1 karma

We also have an ABC 7 up here in New York, and I believe there's one in LA. Of the three, which is the superior ABC 7?

ABC7NewsDC3 karma

From my perch here at ABC7 in DC, all the others are second-best. :-)

mr_yield1 karma

is cheese good?

ABC7NewsDC1 karma

Cheese is delicious! But you should consult your veterinarian about specific dietary decisions for your pets.

Vetralezh1 karma

During the investigation did you find any other questionable substances in dog food other than Pentobarbital?

Also, what is the FDA doing now to combat this issue?

ABC7NewsDC2 karma

We did a story about heavy metals in pet food (lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury) and the levels in some pet foods were 8 to 670 times higher than the average in human foods tested. Stand by for link!

eppinizer1 karma

Are these trace amounts distributed evenly, or is it possible one bag might contain doggy death?

If its trace amounts, any chance of it affecting longevity?

ABC7NewsDC2 karma

I wish I could give a better answer, but we only know the results of our own laboratory tests. We found pretty consistent, non-lethal levels of pentobarbital in our samples. However, based on what's been made public (or obtained through FOIA) it seems the dog food associated with the death of the dog in Washington state contained a concentrated amount of pentobarbital. That brand was "hand packed chunks" (rather than ground up pate-style) which could account for more pentobarbital being in some sections and less in others. That brand was pulled from shelves.

As far as low doses affecting longevity, I am not aware of any studies on this. There's anecdotal evidence though from vets who've indicated that low-dose expose to pentobarbital (potentially though pet food) is causing some dogs and cats to show resistance to the drug when their owners have them euthanized.

motosanders1 karma

Do you have any pets?

ABC7NewsDC2 karma

Yes, all rescues. Two cats and a dog.

castiron_girl1 karma

I read that article and it scared the hell out of me. Thank you for explaining everything so well! Since the first article came out, have you learned anything about dry kibble and whether that’s just as likely to have the euthanasia drugs in it as wet food?

I’ve had my dogs on locally cooked specialty food since I read your article but holy hell is it expensive. I’m HOPING I can safely mix a little kibble in to stretch it.

ABC7NewsDC0 karma

You should really try making it yourself! It's easy and not too time consuming. I make a bunch at once and vacuum-seal it and freeze it in 3-day quantities. A few hours on a Saturday morning and we're set for weeks!

TradingRealGfForRsGf0 karma


ABC7NewsDC9 karma

Here's the thing: it is ILLEGAL for pentobarbital to be used on ANY animal used for food in the human or pet food supply chain. Secondly, our experts tell us it is unlikely that euthanized cattle (or any other animal used for human consumption) would be in any food because 1) very few farmers would spend the considerable amount of money required to euthanize a cow or other ag animal and 2) its meat would then be rendered useless because pentobarbital was introduced. So your theory could be considered even more troubling if you're suggesting that animals in the human food supply are being illegally killed and somehow ending up in a food supply chain. The FDA investigation is ongoing and the agency has not announced its conclusions about the source of the pentobarbital contamination.

Government agencies are paid by taxpayers. They are not private companies; they answer to the people. The fact that they do not want to answer legitimate questions from journalists and concerned citizen groups -- but show up at industry conferences and recommend that journalists direct questions to lobbying organizations rather than the agency itself -- is a sad state of affairs.

Nevermindever-2 karma

It's stupid. Does it affects pets health or well being in such small concentrations? No. It's stupid to make it a big story.

Formaldehyde is poisonous as well, but human body generates it constantly. You could damage someone's health by drinking too much water as well. BS.

ABC7NewsDC1 karma

We don't know the effects of continuous, low dose exposure because there haven't been a lot studies. But separate from that, it raises questions about the presence of contaminants in the food supply.