Friday, June 13, 2008

That's not what the label says...

Purina's foot dragging in their recent feed recall (or "retrieval", as they preferred to call it) has left us wondering about safety and quality control in our horse feeds. Some mistakes may make it out the door with even the best quality control but in horse feed, as in politics, it's the response that matters.

About a week ago (June 3rd) I bought a couple of bags of Eagle Milling brand beet pulp pellets. It was getting dark when I got home, but I went ahead and dumped them into the the heavy duty trash can I use to store them in. I couldn't see the pellets well in the dark and didn't take a real good look until I had finished up the remaining previous stock and started to feed the new ones Friday evening.

I noticed that about half the pellets were pink-brown, not the usual color - which is kind of a "frosted" deep green.  There was also quite a bit of corn mixed in, along with some tiny pellets and a lot of  "dust", which looked like it might be from the tiny pellets. This is not adding up to something I want to feed my insulin resistant horse - or, actually, any of my horses as I haven't a clue what's really in these pellets. Alfalfa? Grain? Minerals? There's something in there that's obviously NOT beet pulp.

I separated some of the "pink" pellets out and put them to soak, next to some of the more normal appearing green pellets. The green pellets looked "normal"  after soaking - a bit like chopped spinach. The "mystery pellets", on the left, resisted softening - a lot of the pellets were still firm and formed. They appeared to be made of a variety of material - possibly some beet pulp or other forage, lighter colored stuff that might be grain, and smaller particles that could be ground up minerals or ...

Using the phone number on the bag tag for Eagle Milling I called and left a message describing the problem.  (Apparently Eagle Milling, a "local" Arizona feed mill, is now a subsidiary of behemoth Cargill.)

Fast forward to Monday morning (after spending a sweaty hour in Sunday's 104+ heat repacking the pellets into their bags to return).  Stacy from Cargill called, wanting complete information about lot numbers, where and when purchased, etc., and she is making arrangements for a no-hassle exchange and appears to be genuinely interested in not having this happen again. It's complicated by the bags, even though purchased the same day, being from two different lots; we can't be certain which bag contained the mystery pellets. I received additional calls from the plant manager; they will send someone out to pick up the feed today.

So what should you do if you open a bag of feed and its not what you expected?
  • If you're feeding "straights", you are more likely to quickly spot if something is not "right".
  • If in doubt, don't feed the product. It won't hurt your horse to miss a few meals as long as you're feeding sufficient hay.
  • Contact the feed company directly if you suspect something is not right with a feed, don't just rely on the feed store to follow up.
  • Document, document, document. Take pictures of the feed, the bag, the bag tag. If the photo doesn't clearly show the label/tag information, write it down. Write a description of what you see and smell that makes you believe there is a problem.
  • Don't throw the feed or product out - it should be returned to the dealer, distributor or feed company. Retain a good size sample, along with your documentation, until any issues are resolved to your satisfaction. Try to keep the product/sample in the same condition it was in when you purchased it (i.e. - keep dry, protect from rodents, etc.)
If you suspect a feed or product has caused illness, in addition to notifying the feed company and your feed store, notify your regular veterinarian and your State veterinarian. Most State veterinarian offices are able to have feeds tested and can initiate action if necessary. You can also have feed analyzed for some of the common toxins on your own through one of the forage testing laboratories.

When a product doesn't meet our expectations, our initial reaction is often to just discard it and resolve not to use that product or brand again, especially if no actual harm was done. Taking the time to throughly document the problem and notify the right people isn't always easy in our busy lives. 

But you will likely find, as I did, that conscientious manufacturers do care about quality control, appreciate that you took the time to notify them of a problem and will go out of their way to make resolving any issues simpler. 

Sure it's good business for a company to respond to customer concerns. But the rapid response and personal interest taken by the folks at Eagle Milling/Cargill reassures me that, had this been a serious or health related concern, there would be prompt action and resolution. 

Angel from Cargill came out to pick up my beet pulp and bring some new bags. The new bags still had quite a few of the "brown" pellets with what might be some grain mixed in, but not near as much corn as my original bags. So we decided I'll go with shreds, at least for the time being until they have a chance to test these pellets and double check the manufacturing. (These apparently are manufactured in California and bagged locally.)
He called the dealer to double check that they have shreds without molasses in stock so I can pick them up when I go into town tomorrow.
Turns out Angel also works with the local 4-H swine program, knows all my friends. Vail, Tucson and large parts of Arizona are still pleasantly "small town".