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  Picking a Bone with Greenies
Some pet owners say their dogs died after eating treat company says it's safe

Reprinted from The Baltimore Sun

Michael Eastwood and Jennifer Reiff adored Burt, the black-and- tan miniature Dachshund they adopted from a rescue shelter in Brooklyn, N.Y., three years ago. The couple lavished him with love and dog treats -- and are now distraught that one of those treats, they say, apparently killed him.

Burt died last summer after eating a popular dog treat called Greenies, they say.

A veterinary surgeon removed 3 1/2 -feet of small intestine along with a spongy green object that Eastwood and Reiff claim was part of a Greenie that expanded in Burt's body and couldn't be passed.

"I never in a million years would have thought it could be a Greenie at fault," Eastwood said. "The packaging says it's 100 percent edible."

Greenies have come under fire from consumers and from veterinarians, many of whom say they have performed surgery on dogs, including some who didn't survive, to remove chunks of the chew from the esophagus and digestive tract.

Eastwood and Reiff have filed a $5 million product-liability lawsuit against Greenie maker S&M NuTec LLC, which is based in Kansas City, Mo.

The Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine is investigating several complaints about the product.

Upset consumers have also taken their complaints to the Internet, where postings have proliferated on chat rooms and animal-oriented Web sites. There, pet owners air concerns and stories about dogs becoming sick after being treated to a Greenie, which, in large pieces, doesn't break down easily in the stomach.

The online connections have become an impromptu support network for people who lost a pet and say they need to know it wasn't their fault. S&M NuTec says its product is safe and reminds consumers on its Web site -- thetruthaboutgreenies.com -- that no human or pet food is 100 percent digestible; otherwise no waste would be produced. Greenies, the company says, are completely edible and 85 percent digestible. Every Greenie ingredient "begins as a human- grade edible ingredient," according to the site.

Spokeswoman Jody Hanson said the product is so safe that its inventor, Joe Roetheli, ate the chews when visiting one of three manufacturing plants. Still, in some cases of Greenie-related deaths, S&M NuTec has offered to pay veterinary medical bills and the cost to buy a new dog, Hanson said, confirming accounts from pet owners. The company has also asked owners to sign agreements requiring that all parties keep the matter confidential and releasing the company from legal liability.

"The manufacturer feels it's really in everybody's best interest not to talk about these cases," she said. "Oftentimes, we'll do an investigation and find out the owner gave the dog the wrong size or possibly got vet treatment too late. That's not anything the manufacturer wants to talk about. These are sensitive, private issues, and the manufacturer wants to protect and respect everybody."

Developed in the late 1990s, Greenies quickly overtook Milk- Bone, made by Kraft Foods, Inc. and became the most popular dog treat in 2003, with about $315 million in annual sales and a total of nearly 600 million sold.

Greenies, which get their green color from chlorophyll and are shaped like a toothbrush on one end and a bone on the other, are marketed as a way to clean teeth and freshen breath. The idea for Greenies sprung from the bad breath of Ivan, the Samoyed that belonged to Roetheli and his wife, Judy. Joe Roetheli worked for the Department of Agriculture and has a doctorate in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri.

His wife was a former schoolteacher. They teamed with Dr. Lon D. Lewis, who has written books on animal nutrition, and developed what they call "the original green smart treat."

The Roethelis say they first tested the treat on Ivan. They were soon working out of their home and traveling to pet stores to try to get their product on the shelves, Hanson said. Within a few years, their work force expanded to dozens, and they were exporting overseas. In 2004, the company was named "Small Business Exporter of the Year" by the National District Export Council, an organization of local business leaders appointed by the Commerce Department.

With Greenies, they had hit upon a formula that some consumers jokingly call "crack" for dogs. According to one anecdote of dogs finding the treats irresistible, drug-sniffing dogs alerted U.S. Customs agents to a shipment of Greenies bound for the United Kingdom in 2002. Authorities held up the Greenies shipment for weeks until tests proved they weren't contraband.

"Dogs really do go crazy for Greenies," Hanson said. "We get testimonials all the time. Some owners not only can't say the word `Greenies' around their dog anymore but they can no longer spell `Greenies' in front of them."

S&M NuTec shares all of the ingredients for Greenies except one - - the "natural flavor" that it says is proprietary. The main ingredients include wheat gluten that provides protein, glycerin that enables the Greenie to gel into its shape, cellulose fiber made from powdered plant material, and magnesium stearate that serves as a lubricant during molding. Greenies were given the "seal of acceptance" from the Veterinary Oral Health Council, according to the company. Independent studies showed that a Greenie a day resulted in a 62 percent reduction in tarter and 33 percent reduction in gingivitis. The VOHC doesn't test products; rather it reviews data from trials conducted according to its protocols.

Similar products have been launched in the wake of Greenies' success, such as Nylabone's NutriDent made by Central Garden & Pet Co. based in Walnut Creek, Calif., and the DentaGreen Bone Treats made by DentaClean LLC, based in Palisades Park, N.J. Neither company returned calls last week.

S&M NuTec was not required to get FDA approval before marketing Greenies. The FDA does review products if safety problems arise. FDA Spokesman Jon Scheid said the agency is looking into eight complaints reported over the past year to its Washington headquarters and a district office in Kansas City. In comparison, the agency has not received complaints about Milk-Bones or Beggin' Strips, another top-selling treat.

Scheid said that the agency hasn't initiated a formal investigation of Greenies and that an agency review does not necessarily mean a product isn't safe. There is always some risk of hard foods causing choking or obstruction if not chewed adequately or swallowed properly, he said.

If the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine determines that a product presents a risk of injury, it can request that a firm recall the product. If the center determines that a product is unfit to be food, it can initiate a seizure or ask a court to enjoin the company from selling the product.

Most recently, Diamond Pet Food voluntarily recalled food that was sold in more than 20 states, including Maryland. The deaths of dozens of dogs across the country have been linked to aflatoxin poisoning from eating contaminated food manufactured at a South Carolina plant owned by Diamond, which is based in Meta, Mo.

Hanson said reports of death from Greenies are "extremely rare" but declined to say how many S&M NuTec has received.

S&M NuTec includes extensive directions with Greenies. The product is recommended for dogs older than 6 months. Weight guidelines help customers select the right-sized Greenie, which come in five variations from "Teenie" to "Jumbo."

The directions also tell customers to monitor dogs to ensure the treat is adequately chewed and to always offer water after feeding. "Gulping any item can be harmful or even fatal to a dog," the directions say.

Some vets and pet owners say the directions are unrealistic.

"These things tend to be wolfed down," said Dr. Brendan McKiernan, a board certified internist at the Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital outside Denver. "They are meant to be chewed carefully, but that's like giving a sharp knife to your 2-year-old. Dogs can't be controlled that way."

McKiernan said Greenies and other compressed vegetable chews could pose a problem with digestion. McKiernan collaborated with three other vets on a study of the veggie chews to be submitted to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. They found that after bones and fishhooks, the chews were the most common culprit in esophagus obstructions reported to vet schools.

Gilbert Wright, a retiree in El Paso, Texas, said a similar problem happened to his Pomeranian, Pompi. He found the dog lying on the floor, not moving but still warm, an hour after giving her a "Petite" Greenie in September. He tried the Heimlich maneuver and then mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, he said, to no avail. As for the Greenies' directions, he said he didn't see them. Those guidelines recommend the "Teenie" size for Pompi's weight.

Pompi's vet, Bernie Page at the Johnsen Animal Hospital, said that during the necropsy, he found a triangular piece of Greenie wedged in Pompi's windpipe. The cause of death: strangulation.

"It just stuck, and she couldn't get it back out," Page said. "It sealed up like a cork in a bottle." Dr. Charles Bell of the Evesham Veterinary Clinic in Marlton, N.J., said he worked on a case five years ago in which a piece of Greenie "adhered to the esophagus, almost like it had cemented to the membranes."

The dog was Peanut, a Chihuahua mix estimated to be at least 16 years old who died as Bell tried to dislodge the Greenie. The owner, Shellie Pinner, said that she contacted S&M NuTec and that company officials blamed Peanut's age and the fact that the dog had heart problems and some front teeth missing.

Incensed, Pinner said she wrote the company to ask why warnings weren't provided if there were risks for dogs with health problems. She said the company changed its labeling after that to caution consumers about the dangers of gulping.

Hanson, the company spokeswoman, said Greenies' packaging has evolved through recommendations from consumers, retailers and industry experts. She added that the company's technical services vet, Dr. Brad Quest, conducts investigations of every complaint by examining medical records, interviewing pet owners and consulting with their vets.

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