LYKENS, Pa .– Hundreds of boxes of pet food lie fallow here, one on top of the other, in the darkness of a cavernous industrial freezer built next to a mountain and rolling farmland.
An Amish farmer pays $ 6,000 a month to keep Kure Pet Food products, including fermented goat’s milk and fishbone broth, frozen here in a cold store. The Dauphin County company, started by a handful of Pennsylvania Amish farmers last year, is in limbo after a Berks County judge recently granted an injunction filed by Answers, another long established company. date in the lucrative raw pet food industry.
None of Kure’s pet food, worth around $ 1 million, is going to hit stores anytime soon.
“I wonder if we could donate it to animal shelters,” said Eric Nault, a former employee of Answers and Kure, outside the facility. “That wouldn’t be selling it.”
The corporate fight includes a divorced couple, days of heated testimony in court between lawyers, experts and the Amish, and allegations of trade secret violations and smear campaigns. Each step of the process was followed by pet industry journalists, bloggers and customers on social networks.
The responses, according to court records, have a “fanatic following” in the industry.
“The shame of the legal ramblings between two pet food companies is that our pets are the ones who will suffer,” a veterinarian wrote on Facebook in November.
The ramblings began in May when sisters Roxanne Stone and Jacqueline Hill, the founders of Answers, left the company to become consultants in the pet food industry and demanded that their shares be bought back. Hill is the ex-wife of Keith Hill, CEO of Answers. In July, the sisters filed a lawsuit against Lystn, Answers’ parent company, saying they still had not been paid. The responses, according to the lawsuit, attempted to prevent Hill and Stone from finding employment in the pet food industry.
“In 2010, I introduced raw goat’s milk into the pet food industry,” Jacqueline Hill told Rocky Ridge Goat Farm in Lykens last month.
According to at the American Kennel Club, raw pet food advocates believe the benefits include “shinier coats, healthier skin, improved dental health, increased energy, and smaller stools.” The AKC has also warned that handling and preparing raw dog food requires meticulous care.
Hill said about 30 Amish farmers have supplied and packaged produce for Answers for years, and some have become nervous about the sisters leaving the business. Five of them decided to start their own business, Initial LLC, which would sell raw pet food under the Kure name. Hill and Stone formed a pet food consultancy firm, Trinity Clean Foods, which advised Kure.
According to court records, Kure started selling pet food in September and sold $ 80,000 worth of products in three months.
Keith Hill could not be reached for comment, but Allan Sodomsky, a Reading attorney representing Answers, said Jacqueline Hill and Stone had left the company with the intention of starting their own business, one that would sell ” exactly the same product with exactly the same formulas. , suppliers and distributors.
Answers responded to Hill and Stone’s lawsuit by filing his, seeking an injunction that would bar Kure from selling his products and the sisters from consulting him.
Several longtime Answers employees quit after Hill and Stone left. According to court records, Answers believed many of those former employees were bashing the company on social media and directly with retailers while trying to secure new deals for Kure.
“They have taken, fundamentally, the heart of our business,” Sodomsky said.
Amish farmers claimed that they never had an official contract with Answers and that they were not aware of signing anything that would prevent them from getting into raw animal feed themselves. company. They also argued that there is no trade secret for raw fermented products.
“It’s something that has been done for thousands of years, passed down from generation to generation,” said farmer Steve Fisher, who is Amish. “It’s not a secret.”
Berks County Superior Court Judge Benjamin Nevius said lawyers for both sides wasted time with “non-essential questioning and personal feuds” during the 12 days of testimony last year. Several Amish farmers testified and Fisher said the experience was unique and terrible.
“It hurts us emotionally, physically and financially,” he said. “We are in a hurry, oppressed and depressed. What other kind of hurry is there? Our rights and our dignity have been taken away from us.
Nevius, in granting the injunction for Answers in November, found that some of these Amish farmers had expired written agreements with Answers that were still honored. Other Amish farmers did not have written agreements. Nevius also discovered that all of the farmers created pet food with years of direct input from Jaqueline Hill and Stone while they were still with Answers, not their own old world recipes.
Nevius also found that Hill and Stone had helped Kure get started in all facets of the business and noted that several former Answers employees, including Nault, had also helped. Nevius said it was “obvious” that Hill and Stone had set up a consultancy firm, believing it freed them from any engagement with Answers, in order to help start Kure.
In court, Answers employees said Kure immediately hurt their business. The company was “walking on water,” said an employee.
Hill and Stone appealed the injunction.
“This case is about the freedom to work,” Hill and Stone wrote in a press release after the court ruling.
In the meantime, Answers has agreed to continue buying raw produce from Amish farmers. One weekday afternoon last month at Rocky Ridge Farm, 30 miles north of Harrisburg, goat’s milk was packed for bulk Answers while Kure’s produce was stored in a cold store a few miles away. .
“What’s worrying is that Answers only agreed to buy the milk for 90 days,” Hill said on the farm.
Ervin King, owner of Rocky Ridge, testified that he would likely have to slaughter his herd of goats if he didn’t provide milk for raw pet food.
Far from farms, in the world of organic shops and pet stores, customers are well aware of the legal issue and have chosen their side at the cash desk before the injunction.
“Customers know more than I do. I’m talking about personal things, ”said Tom Mariner, part owner of Daminger’s Natural Pet Foods in Sewell, Co. Gloucester. “I was selling both products at the same time. They are both good products. I hope one of them will survive.
Hill said she and her sister never disparaged Answers when leaving. She said, however, that they were the face of the company and its main innovators, and “everyone in the industry knew that”. She said social media exploded on its own.
“The pet food industry is very emotional,” she said. “People sometimes love their animals more than they love their children.”