Maker of dog treat Greenies to change treat label

Thursday, February 23, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The maker of Greenies, the country's best-selling dog treat, said Wednesday it plans to change its packaging in response to complaints from some pet owners and veterinarians that the treat could pose a health hazard to some dogs.

S&M NuTec, based in North Kansas City, also said it may remove a claim that Greenies are fully edible, saying its own study shows a dog can only digest up to 85 percent of the bone-shaped treat.

"What we're interested in is the safety of the dog," Joe Roetheli, the company's co-founder and chief executive, told reporters during a conference call.

Roetheli said the company plans to enlarge and expand wording on the packaging that tells dog owners to carefully monitor their pets when feeding them Greenies and make sure they feed their dog the right size of treat.

The company has long warned that dogs who gulp their food or otherwise do not adequately chew Greenies could have trouble digesting the treat, as could animals eating Greenies that are too big or too small for them.

When asked about his company's claims that the treats are 100 percent edible, Roetheli acknowledged that some pet owners may think that means their dogs can completely digest the treat, not just eat all of it. He said he would look into changing the language, adding that it may be too late to add to the new labels.

S&M NuTec has taken a beating in the media in recent weeks, as CNN and several newspapers and local TV stations across the country reported claims from veterinarians and angry pet owners that Greenies -- 315 million of which were sold last year -- were responsible for throat and intestinal blockages in their dogs. According to CNN, at least 13 dogs have died in incidents involving Greenies.

In November, a New York couple filed a $5 million suit against the company, claiming their miniature dachshund died last summer after surgery to remove an undigested piece of a Greenies from his intestine.

Alan Sash, an attorney who represents the New York couple in the lawsuit, said enlarging the print on the packaging won't bring the dead dogs back, adding that S&M NuTec's move does not go far enough.

"If S&M NuTec really cared about the the safety of dogs and not profit, they would look beyond the packaging and change the product itself," Sash told The Associated Press. "We care too much about our dogs to allow the product to remain as is."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received 25 complaints about the treat and is in the midst of an informal inquiry into Greenies, with which Roetheli said his company is cooperating.

In addition, while major retailers such as PetSmart Inc. are still carrying Greenies, some pet stores have removed them from their shelves.

"Since there was no definitive proof that they were fully digestible, and they were fixing to do studies themselves, we decided to pull them," said Debra Manfield, who owns two Kansas City-area pet stores. Manfield added that she had planned to discontinue selling Greenies once her supply was gone because they didn't fit in with her stores' "all-natural" pet food philosophy.

Roetheli said he didn't know whether the media controversy would significantly hurt sales, which totaled $340 million last year.

"We've had good sales in some areas and sales are down in other areas a little bit," he said. "Considering the publicity we've gotten, we've done pretty well."

Roetheli said his company regularly investigates consumer complaints about Greenies and sometimes reimburses pet owners for veterinary expenses or even to replace a dog who died. He estimated the number of times his company has reimbursed owners since he began selling Greenies in 1998 at "several dozen" and that the CNN's 13 fatalities "is in the ballpark of what we've heard of."

But he stressed that Greenies are fundamentally safe, considering the number of incidents against the millions of Greenies sold each year, a figure he put at up to one in 8 million, under the worst-case scenario.

He added that too little focus has been given to the ability of Greenies to help keep dogs' teeth clean, saying complications from gum and tooth decay cut three to five years off a dog's life. The treat bears the seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council.

"We understand it's a very emotional thing (to lose a dog)," he said. But, he added, "We know Greenies are saving a lot of dogs' lives by preventing them from getting periodontal disease."

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