LYKENS, Pa. – Hundreds of boxes of pet food sit fallow here, one stacked on top of another in the darkness of a cavernous industrial freezer built beside a mountain and rolling farmlands.
An Amish farmer pays $6,000 a month to keep the Kure Pet Food products, including fermented goat milk and fish-bone broth, frozen here in cold storage. 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 in the lucrative raw pet-food business.
None of Kure’s pet food, worth about $1 million, will be going to stores anytime soon.
“I wonder if we could donate it to animal shelters,” Eric Nault, a former employee of both Answers and Kure, said outside the facility. “That wouldn’t be selling it.”
The fight between the companies 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. Every step of the process was followed by pet-industry journalists, bloggers, and customers on social media.
Answers, according to court records, has a “fanatical following” in the industry.
“The shame of the legal ramblings going on 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 pet-food industry consultants and asked that their shares be bought out. Hill is the ex-wife of Keith Hill, CEO of Answers. In July, the sisters filed a lawsuit against Lystn, the parent company of Answers, claiming they still hadn’t been paid. Answers, the lawsuit contended, was trying to prevent Hill and Stone from finding employment in the pet-food industry.
“In 2010, I introduced raw goat milk to the pet-food industry,” Jacqueline Hill said at the Rocky Ridge goat farm in Lykens last month.
According to the American Kennel Club, advocates for raw pet food believe the benefits include “shinier coats, healthier skin, improved dental health, increased energy, and smaller stools.” The AKC also warned that handling and preparing raw dog food requires meticulous care.
Hill said approximately 30 Amish farmers have supplied and packaged products for Answers for years and some became nervous about the sisters’ departure from the company. Five of them decided to form their own business, Initial LLC, which would sell raw pet food as Kure. Hill and Stone formed a pet-food consulting business, Trinity Clean Foods, which advised Kure.
According to court records, Kure began 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 lawyer representing Answers, said Jacqueline Hill and Stone left the company with the intention of starting their own business, one that would sell “the exact same product with the exact same formulas, suppliers, and distributors.”
Answers responded to Hill and Stone’s lawsuit by filing its own, seeking an injunction that would forbid Kure from selling its products and forbid the sisters from consulting for it.
Several longtime Answers employees resigned after Hill and Stone’s departure. According to court records, Answers believed that many of those former employees were disparaging the company on social media and directly to retailers while trying to obtain new deals for Kure.
“They took, basically, the core of our company,” Sodomsky said.
The Amish farmers claimed that they had never had an official contract with Answers and weren’t aware of signing anything that would preclude them from getting into raw pet foods themselves. They also argued that there’s no trade secret for fermented raw products.
“It’s something that’s been done for thousands of years, passed down through generations,” said farmer Steve Fisher, who is Amish. “It’s not any secret.”
Berks County Superior Court Judge Benjamin Nevius said lawyers for both parties wasted time with “unessential questioning and personal bickering” during the 12 days of testimony last year. Several Amish farmers testified and Fisher said the experience was unique and terrible.
“It is hurting us emotionally and physically and financially,” he said. “We’re pressed, oppressed, and depressed. What other kind of pressed is there? Our rights and dignity have been taken from us.”
Nevius, in granting the injunction for Answers in November, found that some of those Amish farmers did have written, expired agreements with Answers that were still being honored. Other Amish farmers did not have written agreements. Nevius also found that all of the farmers created the 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 helped Kure get started in every facet of the business and noted that several former Answers employees, including Nault, had helped, too. Nevius said it was “obvious” that Hill and Stone created a consulting firm, believing it freed them from any covenant with Answers, in order to help start Kure.
In court, Answers employees said Kure immediately hurt their business. The company was “treading water,” one employee testified.
Hill and Stone have appealed the injunction.
“This case is about the freedom to work,” Hill and Stone wrote in a news release after the court ruling.
In the meantime, Answers agreed to continue buying raw products from the Amish farmers. On a weekday afternoon last month at the Rocky Ridge farm, 30 miles north of Harrisburg, goat milk was being packaged for Answers in bulk while Kure’s products sat in cold storage a few miles away.
“The concerning thing is Answers only agreed to buy the milk for 90 days,” Hill said at the farm.
Ervin King, owner of Rocky Ridge, testified that he’d likely have to slaughter his goat herd if he wasn’t supplying milk for raw pet foods.
Far from the farms, in the world of boutique and organic pet stores, customers are well aware of the legal issue and chose sides at the cash register before the injunction.
“The customers know more about it than I do. I’m talking personal stuff,” said Tom Mariner, co-owner of Daminger’s Natural Pet Foods in Sewell, Gloucester County. “I was selling both products at one time. They’re both good products. I hope one survives.”
Hill said she and her sister never disparaged Answers on the way out. She said they were the face of the company, however, and its chief innovators, and “everybody in the industry knew that.” She said social media blew up on its own.
“The pet-food industry is very emotional,” she said. “People sometimes love their pets more than they love their children.”