LIKENS, Pennsylvania – Hundreds of pet food boxes sit comfortably here, one stacked on top of the other in the dark of a cavernous industrial refrigerator 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 fish bone broth, frozen here in cold storage. The Dauphin County company, which was started by a few Amish farmers in Pennsylvania last year, has fallen into oblivion after a Berks County judge recently issued an injunction filed by Answers, another longtime stalwart in the lucrative raw pet food industry.
None of Kure’s pet foods, which are worth about $1 million, won’t be hitting stores anytime soon.
“I wonder if we can donate it to animal shelters,” Eric Nolte, a former employee at both Answers and Kure, said outside the facility. “This wouldn’t be selling it.”
The fight between the two companies includes a divorced couple, days of heated testimony in court between attorneys, experts and the Amish, allegations of trade secret violations and defamation campaigns. Every step of the process was followed by pet industry journalists, bloggers, and clients on social media.
The answers, according to court records, have “fanatic followers” in the industry.
“The shame of the legal squabbling between two pet food companies is that our pets are going to suffer,” a vet wrote on Facebook in November.
The bickering began in May when sisters Roxanne Stone and Jacqueline Hill, founders of Answers, left the company to become consultants in the pet food industry and demanded their stock be bought out. Hill is the ex-wife of Keith Hill, CEO of Answers. In July, the sisters sued Lystn, the parent company of Answers, claiming that they had not yet been paid. The suit alleged that the answers were trying to prevent Hill Weston from finding work in the pet food industry.
“In 2010, I introduced raw goat milk into the pet food industry,” Jacqueline Hill at the Rocky Ridge goat farm in Leekens said last month.
According to the American Kennel Club, advocates of raw pet food believe the benefits include “shinier coats, healthier skin, improved dental health, increased energy, and smaller stools.” The AKC also warns that handling and preparing raw dog food requires careful care.
Hill said nearly 30 Amish farmers have supplied and packaged products for Answers for years, and some have become concerned about the sisters leaving the company. Five of them decided to set up their own company, Initial LLC, which would sell raw pet food under the name Kure. Hill and Stone founded a pet food consulting company, Trinity Clean Foods, who advised Corey.
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 Alan Sudomsky, the Reading attorney representing Answers, said Jacqueline Hill and Stone left the company with the intention of starting their own business, a venture that would sell “the exact same product with the same formulas, suppliers and distributors.”
Answers responded to Hill and Stone’s lawsuit by filing a lawsuit of her own, seeking an injunction preventing Kure from selling her products and preventing the sisters from consulting with her.
Several long-time Answers employees have resigned after Hill and Stone’s departure. According to court records, Answers believed that many of these former employees were disparaging the company on social media and directly to retailers as they tried to secure new deals for Kure.
“They basically took the core of our company,” Sudomsky said.
The Amish farmers claimed that they had never had a formal contract with Answers and were unaware of signing anything that would prevent them from getting into raw pet food themselves. They also argued that there was no trade secret for raw, fermented products.
“It’s something that’s been done for thousands of years, and it’s been passed down for generations,” said farmer Steve Fisher, who is Amish. “This is not a secret.”
Berks County Superior Court Judge Benjamin Neveus said attorneys for both parties wasted time on “unnecessary questioning and personal wrangling” during the 12 days of testifying last year. Many Amish farmers have witnessed and Fisher said the experience was unique and awesome.
“It hurts us psychologically, physically and financially,” he said. “We are persecuted, persecuted and depressed. any other kind of pressure Is there? He robbed us of our rights and our dignity.”
Neveus, upon being granted the injunction with the answers in November, found that some of these Amish farmers had already written expired agreements with the answers still being honored. Other Amish farmers did not have written agreements. Nevius also found that all farmers created pet food with years of direct input from Jacqueline Hill and Stone while they were still with the answers, not their own recipes from the ancient world.
Nevius also discovered that Hill and Stone helped Kure get started on every aspect of the business and noted that several former Answers employees, including Nault, also helped. Neveus said it was “obvious” that Hill and Stone set up a consulting firm, believing it freed them of any covenant with Answers Company, in order to help start Kure.
In court, Answers employees said Corey immediately hurt their business. One employee testified that the company was “treading on water”.
Hill and Stone appealed the injunction.
“This case is about freedom of action,” Hill Weston wrote in a press release after the court ruling.
Meanwhile, The Answers Company has agreed to continue purchasing raw produce from Amish farmers. One weekday afternoon last month at Rocky Ridge Farm, 30 miles north of Harrisburg, goat’s milk was being packed for answers while Kure produce was in cold storage a few miles away.
“The worrying thing is that the answers only agreed to buy milk for 90 days,” Hill said at the farm.
Irvin King, owner of Rocky Ridge, testified that he would likely have to slaughter a herd of goats if he wasn’t providing milk for raw pet food.
Far from farms, in the world of pet stores and organic stores, customers are well aware of the legal problem and pick sides at the cash register before the injunction.
“Customers know more about it than I do. I talk about the personal stuff,” said Tom Mariner, co-owner of Daminger’s Natural Pet Foods in Sewell, Gloucester County. “I was selling both products simultaneously. Both are good product. I hope one survives.”
Hill said she and her sister did not underestimate the answers on their way out. She said they were the face of the company, however, and its chief innovators, and “everyone in the industry knows it.” She said that social networking sites exploded on their own.
“The pet food industry is very emotional,” she said. “People sometimes love their pets more than they love their children.”