A year ago, Menu Foods announced a massive recall of pet food, which started an avalanche of related recalls. In the past year, consumer demand has led to a number of efforts to tighten restrictions on imported food ingredients. Now, one year later, is pet food any safer?
While at first, ingesting the food wasn't conclusively linked to sickness or death, the animals' lethargy, vomiting, and loss of appetite suggested possible kidney failure. This was confirmed later, when thousands of pets either died or were saved by extreme medical measures.
Consumer confidence reached an all-time low as more and more pet foods, some from highly respected "premium pet food companies," were added to the FDA recall list. The list eventually reached thousands of pet food varieties and lot numbers.
Contaminated wheat gluten was initially blamed by some sources, although Menu Foods' original cryptic statement was that "the timing of the complaint coincides with the introduction of an ingredient from a new supplier." Menu Foods has switched to a different supplier for "that ingredient." On March 30th, the FDA announced that melamine (which is not cleared for use by the FDA for any food product) was the toxin found in wheat gluten.
Public Fears Turn to Rage
When it was discovered that Menu Foods was aware of the possibility of tainted pet foods as early as February 20, and had delayed informing the public while it conducted feeding tests of suspect food on cats and dogs, the public's initial fear turned to rage. Pet owners demanded answers:
- How many cats and dogs have really died?
While the FDA acknowledged as many as 14,000 consumer complaints in the first four weeks, it steadfastly reported only 16 known deaths. Nine of these, of course were the deaths from 20 unfortunate cats and dogs Menu Foods tested with suspected contaminated pet food.
- Where are these toxins coming from?
- What was the purpose of adding melamine to wheat and rice products?
Bingo! Melamine had become a huge side business in China, when it was found that its high nitrogen content was perfect for lending the impression of enhanced protein wheat gluten and rice protein. And it was cheap. An animal feed seller in Zhangquiu was quoted as saying, "It's true you can make a lot more profit by putting melamine in. Melamine will cost you about $1.20 for each protein count per ton, whereas real protein costs you about $6, so you can see the difference." (Quoted from the New York Times by David Goldstein.)
- Is the government ever going to take action?
While pet owners agonized, vote-conscious politicians were fairly quick to respond. On April 12, 2007, a Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee hearing was held on the pet food recalls. The hearing was chaired by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Stephen F. Sundlof, D.V.M., Ph.D., Director, FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, Department of Health and Human Services, was on the hot seat. In his testimony, he acknowledged that over 100 brands of cat and dog foods had been voluntarily recalled, while emphasizing that that number represented only 1% of the pet foods on the market.
He went on to praise the cooperation of "our federal and state partners, health authorities, veterinarians, the news media, the American public, and others who have supported this investigation." He continued, "We also appreciate the prompt action and cooperation of the firms who voluntarily initiated recalls and the continued support of other distributors and retailers affected by the recall. The cooperation and coordination of all of the professionals in this contamination incident enhanced FDA's ability to respond in the moment, to focus on the public health issue at hand, and help ensure the safety of America's pet food."
- Delay in reporting.
Menu Foods, Inc. first noticed a potential problem on February 20, 2007 but did not contact FDA until March 15, 2007. In the meantime, other companies were selling tainted product, and the supplier wasn't aware it had provided wheat gluten contaminated with melamine. Durbin urged penalties for delays such as this, which endanger human and animal health.
- Lack of inspections.
According to testimony, the Menu Foods facility in Emporia, Kansas, where many of these products were made, had never been inspected by the FDA. "The agency has been relying on the states to conduct inspections, but the FDA has jurisdiction over all pet food manufacturing facilities and the ultimate responsibility to ensure facilities comply with FDA standards. Where there should be federal regulation, there is instead a patchwork of state inspection systems and voluntary guidance. Durbin wants to require the FDA to work with the states to establish a standardized set of regulations and inspection requirements."
- Incomplete data and reporting from the FDA."Blogs and nonprofit websites have filled a gap and become the most efficient way to share information on contaminations. Durbin wants to direct the FDA to create a similar information sharing system that would allow state veterinarians, pet owners, and others to alert the FDA of possible contaminations."