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Pet food makers working to bring trust back to the table

After recall, firms contact customers, promise tough tests

WASHINGTON -- Pet food makers whose products have been pulled from store shelves face one of their toughest challenges ever: regaining customers' trust.

The nation's largest pet food recall began simply, in mid-March , with a single manufacturer's products. Since then, it has ricocheted across the nation, with at least 154 brands being pulled.

As a result, pet food sales have slumped. For example, semi moist cat food sales plummeted by 31.2 percent in the four weeks ended March 25 , compared with the month prior, according to Information Resources Inc. , whose sales figures do not include Wal-Mart Stores.

While congressional critics of the Food and Drug Administration call for the formation of a single agency with responsibility for food safety and a letter circulates on Capitol Hill to support a $200 million food-safety budget increase for the FDA, the task of mending customer relationships falls to each company.

Smaller companies, like SmartPak Canine , an eight-year-old company based in Plymouth , are trying to do that one customer at a time, the same way they built their businesses.

SmartPak was swept up in the recall in April when one of its suppliers imported an ingredient from China that was tainted with an indus trial chemical. As a precautionary move, the company pulled a production run of its LiveSmart Weight Management Chicken and Brown Rice dog food. The company eventually determined that the recalled product did not contain detectable levels of melamine , an industrial chemical linked to the deaths and illnesses of thousands of American cats and dogs . Rogue Chinese exporters are suspected of adding melamine and cyanuric acid , compounds high in nitrogen , to vegetable proteins to trick customers into paying premium prices for inferior wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate .

In early May , SmartPak's involvement in the pet food recall deepened. Independent tests that the company commissioned for all of its LiveSmart brands found that its Adult Lamb and Brown Rice dog food contained melamine because of cross contamination at a plant where Chenango Valley Pet Foods , its manufacturing partner, makes that and other premium pet food brands.

On May 2 , the day it received the unexpected test results, SmartPak called every customer who ordered the LiveSmart Adult Lamb and Brown Rice dog food to alert them of the problem. It worked with UPS to intercept and redirect consumer orders to SmartPak. By letter, e-mail, and website updates, it has passed along what it knows about the recall to its entire customer base -- including people who only buy its feed for horses .

"I think we're going to come out of this fine because we took the approach we did," said Paal Gisholt , SmartPak president . "Handling the initial crisis in a very open way was a good first step. But people are counting on us to make good on our promises to continue to do everything in our power to make sure their dogs get safe, healthy dog food in the right amount."

Customers pay a premium for SmartPak. Its portion packs are designed to ensure dogs eat a balanced diet in precise servings to maintain proper weight. The company also has partnerships with other companies, such as Newman's Own Organics , to repackage their dog food in SmartPak containers.

According to recent Smith Barney research, such elite dog food brands were expected to command a growing share of revenue -- rising by 9 percent per year -- as more pet owners treat coddled cats and pampered pooches like surrogate children.

Prior to the recall, SmartPak's Gisholt -- like many other pet food company executives -- did not know the country of origin for every ingredient that goes into his firm's products. Finding out that information now may take weeks , Gisholt said, because Chenango Valley Pet Foods , SmartPak's manufacturing partner, is in the midst of a "pretty severe crisis" caused by the pet food recall and cross contamination that, last week, expanded the recall to ferret food.

Newman's Own Organics also wanted to find out the origin of the ingredients used in its entire pet food line. It took weeks to research the answer for a single product, its adult dog food. The company confirmed that every ingredient, from fresh, human-grade chicken free of antibiotics , to the vitamins , comes from US sources, according to Peter Meehan , chief executive of Newman's Own Organics.

From the outset of the pet food recall, Newman's Own Organics prominently posted a note on its website saying its pet foods were not part of the recall and do not include wheat gluten or rice protein concentrate .

The move was "brilliant," said Nora Ganim Barnes , director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth .

"What happened was an ingredients problem. What they have now is a marketing problem," Barnes said. "If you don't get the marketing right, you can fire your accountants, you can fire your ingredients people. Because it's about getting your market share back right now."

For its part, SmartPak is ramping up oversight. It already used a rigorous evaluation process when it selected Chenango Valley, a company with 75 years experience, to produce its dog food. SmartPak worked through a consultant with 35 years of experience, toured the manufacturing facility, checked references, and leveraged Chenango Valley's track record for making top-rated holistic and organic food brands.

But now, if one of Chenango Valley's trusted suppliers wants to change a vendor -- as one did when it switched to a Chinese import -- they first must notify SmartPak.

"I would describe what we're going to as sort of a 'trust, but verify' kind of a program," Gisholt said.

In reaction to the contamination problem, some companies are pledging to test all wheat gluten or all rice protein concentrate for the presence of industrial chemicals.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that the finished product is going to be clean," Gisholt said. "The only way to really know is by testing the finished product." So SmartPak says it is adding another layer of chemical analysis.

Any finished animal food product that the company repackages in its SmartPak delivery system -- including Newman's Own Organics -- will be tested for melamine and cyanuric acid before shipment to customers. The tests, to be conducted by Central Analytical Laboratories , near New Orleans, will cost tens of thousands of dollars per year .

For customers like Laurie Doty , such pro active steps are part of the reason they remain loyal to SmartPak. Doty, who works at a pet "resort" near Kansas City, had been poring over websites listing recalled brands, looking for SmartPak, the chow she feeds her 5 -year-old rottweiler, Harley Bear . Instead of finding anything through her own sleuthing, she got a speedy call and e-mail from SmartPak.

"They notified me before it even hit the press. I feel like they did an excellent job. They were very honest, matter of fact about it, very caring," she said.

Diedtra Henderson can be reached at dhenderson@globe.com.

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