If you’re one of our customers who buys Acana or Orijen products, or just a keen follower of the ongoings of the pet food industry, you probably are aware of the current class action complaint brought against Champion Petfoods alleging the presence of unsafe levels of harmful contaminants in their products. Champion issued a statement back in March, along with a document addressing frequently asked questions and the intent to challenge the complaint in full. In addition to that, we’ve stated our position in support of Champion and have been here to answer any questions you may have had. We have confidence in Champion’s position, and trust that their food is safe for consumption.
Since the announcement of the lawsuit, we have been watching the situation closely and have conducted our own research into the issue. In this article, we’d like to take some time to examine the available information and present our personal findings on the matter. We would like to emphasize that the following is our own research and presentation, and is being done so independently from Champion Petfoods. The claims therefore amount to our opinion and should be taken as such. So, with that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on.
(If you’re already familiar with the details of the lawsuit and want to skip the background of the case and just get to the nitty-gritty, you can skip to our response and conclusion.)
According to the court document, the complaint is against Champion Petfoods for:
“their negligent, reckless, and/or intentional practice of misrepresenting and failing to fully disclose the presence of heavy metals and toxins in their pet food sold throughout the United States.”
The document continues on to say:
“Defendants’ packaging and labels further emphasize fresh, quality, and properly sourced ingredients and even declares its dog food has “ingredients we love”. Yet nowhere in the labeling, advertising, statements, warranties and/or packaging do Defendants disclose that the Contaminated Pet Foods (defined herein) contain levels of arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and/or BISPHENOL A (“BPA”) — all known to pose health risks to humans and animals, including dogs”
The document then provides a chart listing the levels of arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and BPA allegedly found in Champion Petfoods. The full complaint document can be read here.'
In response to the complaint, Champion has issued a motion to dismiss the case, which can be read here. In the document, they attribute to the plaintiff a:
“lack of standing and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Defendants respectfully submit that the well-pleaded factual allegations set forth in the Complaint are insufficient to support jurisdiction or any of the causes of action asserted therein.”
The motion to dismiss continues on:
“This lawsuit falsely accuses Champion Petfoods USA Inc. and Champion Petfoods LP (collectively, “Champion”) of misleading pet lovers by selling ORIJEN and ACANA dog food with alleged “excessive levels of heavy metals” and without disclosing such. In direct contradiction to these allegations, Plaintiff Kellie Loeb’s (“Loeb”) Complaint incorporates Champion’s publicly available May 2017 White Paper (the “White Paper”) which analyzes and discloses the miniscule levels of naturally occurring heavy metals in Champion’s dog food. Because Champion uses a significant amount of fresh and raw meat, fish, and other natural ingredients in making its dog food, the finished product contains naturally occurring heavy metals. Based on third-party testing, the White Paper points out that the small amount of naturally occurring heavy metals present in ORIJEN and ACANA diets are well below a level that would pose a danger to dogs”
To further illustrate Champion’s position, here is an excerpt from their official public statement:
“The complaint focuses on the perceived safety of our offerings, and relies upon opaque testing methods to erroneously claim that some of the elements found within our food are not naturally occurring, but rather the result of ‘contamination’.
Much like the natural human food we consume, Champion Petfoods contains small traces of a range of naturally occurring elements. These so-called ‘heavy metals’ are found throughout the Earth’s environment, and the miniscule amounts of these substances found in Champion Petfoods are a safe and common component of both human and animal diets.”
Of course our first thoughts were to reach out to our Champion representatives who assured us that they stand by their ethics and products. Good enough for us, as we’ve had a great relationship with our reps and trust them to provide us with accurate information about the products we choose to carry. In addition to reaching out to our representatives, we decided to look into the allegations being made in order to learn more about the situation. The following are questions we had and the information we found to best answer them.
What are the chemicals that were found?
According to the lawsuit, tests found Champion products to contain arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and BPA.
Arsenic - Arsenic is a chemical element present in the environment from both natural and human sources, including erosion of arsenic-containing rocks, volcanic eruptions, contamination from mining and smelting ores, and previous or current use of arsenic-containing pesticides. There are two types of arsenic, organic and inorganic. The inorganic forms of arsenic are the forms that have been associated with long term health effects. Because both forms of arsenic have been found in soil and ground water for many years, some arsenic may be found in certain food and beverage products, including rice, fruit juices and juice concentrates.
Mercury - Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system.
Lead - Lead is a toxic substance present in our environment in small amounts. Lead in soil can be deposited on or absorbed by plants, including plants grown for food. Lead is in food because it is in the environment and lead cannot simply be removed from food. Absent our ability to prevent lead from entering the food supply, the FDA’s goal is to protect human health by ensuring that consumer exposure to lead is limited to the greatest extent feasible.
Cadmium - A carcinogenic heavy metal. Most cadmium used in the United States is a byproduct from the smelting of zinc, lead, or copper ores, and is used to manufacture batteries. 
BPA - BPA is an industrial chemical used to make polycarbonate, a hard, clear plastic, which is used in many consumer products. As is the case when foods are in direct contact with any packaging material, small, measurable amounts of the packaging materials may migrate into food and can be consumed with it. FDA’s current perspective, based on its most recent safety assessment, is that BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods.
How much of these chemicals were found in Champions products?
The lawsuit document provides a chart containing the amounts of chemicals found in Champion products. Here is an excerpt from the chart. The full chart can be read in the lawsuit document which can be found here.
What do these numbers mean?
The amounts of these chemicals found in the food are represented in parts per billion (ppb), or microgram per kilogram (µg/kg). This means that the number is the given amount of substance per billion of substance measured. Here, a billion parts (or units) is equal to 1 kilogram (kg), and the substance number is how many micrograms there are in that 1 kilogram. For reference, a 4.5 lb bag of Origen Original kibble is 2 kilograms. [More information on ppm and ppb measurement can be found here]
An example from the lawsuit would be the arsenic claimed to be found in Acana Regionals Wild Atlantic New England Fish and Fresh Greens Dry Dog Food. The document in the lawsuit claims that this line of food contains 3256.40 micrograms of arsenic per kilogram (or 3256.40 parts per billion) of the material tested. So, out of 1,000,000,000.00 units of sample tested, 3256.40 of them were arsenic. That looks like a big number, because we are using such small units, but it really can be simplified to 3.26 mg (or 0.0000032564 kilograms) per 1 kilogram—something much less scary.
But what are safe levels?
Since heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury are found naturally in the environment and is common in foods, we looked into what exactly safe levels are. Below is a table provided by the FDA which shows the estimated Maximum Tolerable Limit (MTL) of a given substance for dogs, cats and other animals. Every substance is toxic in enough quantities, including the food we eat every day, so the MTL is the amount of a substance an organism can take before experiencing adverse effects. [Full report here.]
As seen in the chart, the levels purported to be present in Champion’s products are well below the Maximum Tolerable Limit (once again presented in ppb, or µg/kg).
Another unclear factor is that the data provided in the complaint does not specify the type of arsenic found in the products tested. Arsenic can be found in both organic and inorganic forms, and it is unclear whether the type found in the tested samples is the more dangerous inorganic form or the more benign organic form, or both.
How were products tested for chemicals?
Our next question is how were these tested? According to the complaint, the data was provided by the Clean Label Project (CLP), an organization that issues proprietary ratings for various foods, including pet foods, based on nutrition and contaminants. Unfortunately, CLP does not provide any of their methodology or information on how the products were tested. Upon further research, CLP has historically refused to provide information about testing methods or reveal any of the actual data they base their ratings on. The CLP website offers a “detailed summary” of their results, which amounts to just detailed descriptions of the types of chemicals they were testing for, but do not provide their actual findings. So as to the publishing of this article, there is no way to tell what was done to produce their results, how many bags were tested, how samples were collected and analyzed, and what was in each product tested—that’s just bad science.
When asked during a Q&A session on the online social media platform Reddit why they do not publicly publish the methodology or results of their tests, CLP representatives responded with:
“By providing raw values to the public, we open ourselves up to legal action from large corporations with far more resources and way more lawyers. Even if our data are 100% correct, 100% of the time, that process would be a financial strain we might not be able to handle.” 
When pressed with further questions and challenges to their reluctance, they continued on to say:
“We decided not to give raw values for a couple of reasons. First, what's more telling than the raw numbers is the gradient between the best and worst. Here's a fun fact: the EPA lead action limit in drinking water is 15 ppb (parts per billion). Out of all pet foods we tested, 89% exceeded this level.
Second, we've released data like that in the past, and it can be confusing to consumers. And third, we are a small nonprofit, and providing raw values will open us up to liability.“ 
Despite this potential liability they may face for releasing their data, they publish their claims and ratings without any data, instead offering their own arbitrary scoring system at face value. For example, a product is given a score of 1 out of 5 for heavy metals; they go on to tell you what heavy metals are but they don’t tell you how much they actually found or how. You have to trust not only that their testing methods are correct, but that they number they found somehow translates to their scoring system in a meaningful way. The numbers presented in the lawsuit documents also lack the same methodological context. Perhaps they will provide more evidence if the lawsuits advances to later stages.
Looking Deeper Into the Clean Label Project
Further research online showed that CLP has been widely criticized for their methods, and not just regarding pet foods. CLP has previously used the same tactics and methodology to stir up concerns about human baby food as well. Forbes has described the company as mongers of fear, doubt and uncertainty. Others have noted CLP’s shady tactics, with therawfeedingcommunity.com saying “they have dodged questions, ignored and deleted requests for more information, and attempted to discredit and accuse people who respectfully raise legitimate concerns.”  During the aforementioned Ask Me Anything Q&A, many of the participants heavily criticized CLP’s inconsistent and hypocritical answers.
Incidentally, when looking at the ratings they have published for pet products, many of the lowest rated foods are companies known for higher quality, safety, sourcing and nutrition while the highest-rated companies are big-brand companies traditionally known for lower quality nutrition.
Another troubling aspect of these opaque testing methods is CLP’s relationship to the lab that provided the testing and results. CLP claims the results were “a generous donation” from Ellipse Analytics, an independent testing lab. Further research revealed that Ellipse Analytics may not be so independent from CLP, as the current Executive Director for CLP since September 2016 is Jackie Bowen, who previously served as President of Ellipse Analytics from April 2016 to January 2017, overlapping with her position at CLP. It is also interesting to note that the website for Ellipse Analytics was registered March 28, 2016, a month after CLP’s website was registered on Feb. 16, 2016. All these factors raise flags regarding the legitimacy of CLP’s testing and claims and, at the very least, the presence of bias or conflict of interest. Ultimately, only the raw data will determine if their claims against Champion hold water.
If you’re starting to think that this is all sounding more and more like a wild conspiracy theory, then buckle up, because the rabbit hole goes even deeper if you look into who owns the lab doing the testing. According to Reddit user FozzieKuma, Ellipse Analytics CEO Kevin Hicks has a 25-year track record of starting and monetizing product evaluation companies, all of which have been criticized for their testing methods. In 1998, Hicks helped found medical industry rating company HealthGrades, which compiled healthcare information and user reviews for doctors and hospitals. At the time, the company suffered allegations of not verifying user reviews and providing incorrect data for various practices or doctors, when a 2002 study by Journal of the American Medical Association questioned their data. After that, Hicks co-founded BeverageGrades, a wine-grading lab in the same vein as both HealthGrades and Ellipse Analytics, which was also subject to criticism for its questionable methodology in testing a variety of low-cost California wines. During his time there, BeverageGrades released a report saying that many low-cost California wines had dangerous levels of arsenic. The report was released with an offer to winemakers for “independent testing certifying safety”. After the report, a class action lawsuit (Doris Charles v. The Wine Group LLC.) was filed against wine producer The Wine Group LLC, alleging that the company misrepresented their wines as safe while containing arsenic, and used the BeverageGrades reports as primary evidence—sound familiar? The kicker is that at the time of all this, Hicks owned his own wine distribution company, Baroness Wines (before selling it to Empire Distributor), while simultaneously grading other wines. Presently, Hicks is CEO of Third Party Validation and VerificationLLC, which, in addition to Ellipse Analytics, owns the trademarks for a litany of grading services such as TeaGrades, VitaminGrades and SpiceGrades, among many others. So keep an eye out for future lawsuits supported by these companies.
All these revelations strengthen our resolve in supporting Champion, at least in regard to the safety of their food. We are not only purveyors of their products, but also customers who trust the health and nutrition of our pets to the food we feed them. The lawsuit makes additional claims regarding the information on their product packaging, but our main concern is the safety of our pets. As far as we’ve researched, our opinion remains that the claims filed in the complaint do not seem to be substantial and, even if taken at face value, do not present a risk to our pets. If any of this changes, or new developments in the case occur, we will be sure to promptly inform all of our customers as soon as possible.
- Complaint - https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0377/3417/files/2018-03-01-Acana-and-Orijen-Complaint-Concerning-Heavy-Metals-and-BPA-Contaminants-Reitman-v-Champion-PetFoods-USA.pdf?3574049590021958485
- Champion’s Motion to Dismiss - https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0377/3417/files/Champion-adv.-Loeb-Motion-and-Memorandum-in-Support-of-Motion-to-Dismi.pdf?3574049590021958485
- Response to Class Action Complaint - https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0377/3417/files/Champion_Class_Action_Complaint_Response.pdf?13655622795185996491
- Champion Lawsuit FAQ - https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0377/3417/files/Class_Action_Lawsuit_FAQ_s.pdf?13655622795185996491
- The White Paper “Heavy Metals” - https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0377/3417/files/Champion-Petfoods-White-Paper-Heavy-Metals.pdf?15137267668117910302
Clean Label Project
- Clean Label Project - https://www.cleanlabelproject.org/
- “Ask Us Anything” Q&A thread - https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/64mpty/we_are_the_clean_label_project_a_nonprofit_that/
Further Reading About the Lawsuit and Clean Label Project
- Why Wont Clean Label Project Listen To Owners?- https://therawfeedingcommunity.com/2017/06/20/why-wont-clean-label-project-listen-to-concerned-pet-owners/
- Lawsuit Filed Against Champion Pet Food – Acana and Orijen - https://truthaboutpetfood.com/lawsuit-filed-against-champion-pet-food-acana-and-orijen/
- Clean Label Rating Site Misleading to Pet Food Consumers - https://www.petfoodindustry.com/blogs/7-adventures-in-pet-food/post/6454-clean-label-rating-site-misleading-to-pet-food-consumers
- Our Take on the Orijen/Acana Class Action Lawsuit - http://www.greendogpetsupply.com/blog/our-take-on-the-orijenacana-class-action/
- Orijen/Acana Lawsuit: What You Should Know - https://www.petful.com/food/orijen-lawsuit-2018/