Deer hunters know that if a whitetail's sensitive snout gets wind of human scent, it'll flee in alarm -- and the hunt is over.
That's why hunters, including 500,000 in Minnesota, spend millions of dollars each year buying special hunting clothing with activated carbon that promises to eliminate human odors.
Now that clothing, which has been on the market for about a dozen years and is sold by virtually every major outdoor retailer in the nation, is under fire.
A lawsuit filed Sept. 13 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis alleges the clothing doesn't work and that hunters have been -- and continue to be -- defrauded.
The suit was filed against ALS Enterprises Inc. of Muskegon, Mich., which produces and licenses "Scent-Lok" clothing sold under that name and others, including ScentBlocker. The suit says the company is the largest maker of such clothing and licenses it to at least 22 others, including Gander Mountain Co., Cabela's Inc., Bass Pro Shops Inc. and Browning Arms Co. Those four firms also are named as defendants.
The suit alleges the five firms conspired to deceive consumers and suppressed and concealed the truth. "Consumers have been duped into spending significant amounts of money on a product that does not work as represented," the suit says.
A spokesman for Gander Mountain, the only Minnesota-based firm being sued, declined to comment. Mike Andrews, vice president of marketing for ALS, said the suit is without merit.
"We've done years of research ... we have hundreds of testimonials from consumers over the years," he said last week. "We know it works. And we're excited about the opportunity to prove to the world once and for all how effective our product is."
Added Andrews: "We have a written guarantee that says you'll experience unalarmed wild animals downwind. You don't build this kind of business on something that's not true."
The company says testing done for it by Intertek Testing Services in Cortland, N.Y., has shown its fabric performs as claimed. It also cites supportive studies by S. Holger Eichhorn of the University of Windsor in Ontario and Donald B. Thompson of North Carolina State University.
ALS is a privately held company, and Andrews wouldn't reveal sales figures, but some have estimated the activated carbon hunting clothing business may be worth $100 million annually.
Four men who bought the clothing -- Mike Buetow of Shakopee, Theodore Carlson of Edina, Gary Richardson Jr. of St. Paul and Joe Rohrbach of Shakopee -- are named as plaintiffs in the suit. But attorneys are seeking class-action status, meaning it would be argued on behalf of all those who bought the clothing. The suit says "tens of thousands" of Minnesota hunters have been deceived into buying millions of dollars of odor-eliminating clothing.
Buetow, a bow hunter, said he and the others can't comment on the case on the advice of attorneys. He said he bought $1,000 worth of Scent-Lok gear -- including pants, coats, face masks, hats and gloves -- in 2003.
The lawsuit is just the latest salvo fired at ALS and its sellers. The question of whether the company's clothing works as claimed has been the topic of Internet chat rooms for about the past year.
And a Minnesotan -- T.R. Michels, 57, of Burnsville, an outdoor writer, author, hunting guide and frequent hunting seminar speaker who has his own website (www.trmichels.com) -- acknowledges he is responsible for raising much of the stink.
"Hunters have been screwed," he said. "They have been misled. And they [companies] are making tons of money off the stuff."
He said he has no ax to grind and began looking at the clothing because his job as a writer and outdoor expert is to "look into myths and dispell them."
Said Michels: "I was lied to, and that really ticked me off."
He is not involved in the lawsuit, and won't be because, while he has used Scent-Lok clothing, he's never purchased it, he said. However, Michels has questioned the performance of the clothing with the U.S. Patent Office and has posted numerous exchanges he's had with the company on his website and others.
He said outdoor magazines won't write about the issue for fear of losing lucrative advertising dollars for the hunting clothing, and that he has lost freelance work because of his stance.
Everyone claims science is on their side.
ALS has created a new section on the company's website (www.scentlok.com) to explain how the activated carbon adsorbs human odors. (Adsorption is the adhesion of the gas or liquid molecules to the surfaces of solids.) Andrews said independent experts have verified the company's findings.
"It does work as described," Andrews said. "Unfortunately some people refuse to look at the data we've provided."
No one disputes that activated carbon adsorbs odors. But even ALS acknowledges the carbon can become saturated with odors. Andrews says the company's clothing can be "regenerated" or "reactivated" many times by putting it in a regular household dryer for 45 minutes. Then it's ready to adsorb more odors.
"We know that even after several years of use, it still has enough adsorption capacity to overcome big game animals' [scenting ability]," Andrews said.
But the lawsuit and Michels dispute that.
The suit says that dryer temperatures never exceed 150 degrees, but temperatures in excess of 800 degrees are needed to reactivate the carbon, and even then it wouldn't be restored to full adsorptive capacity.
The suit doesn't cite any independent testing done on the clothing that shows it doesn't work.
"Defendants knew or should have known that their odor-eliminating clothing cannot, as a matter of science, eliminate all human odors ... or render a human body scent-invisible to a deer or other game animals," the suit states.
The suit says that had hunters known that the clothing doesn't eliminate all human odors and cannot be regenerated in household dryers, they wouldn't have bought it.
The suit also claims the defendants violated the Minnesota Consumer Fraud Act, the Minnesota Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, the Minnesota Unlawful Trade Practices Act and involved civil conspiracy.
Andrews said ALS will vigorously fight the suit.