YOUR WHOLE PET
Is Your Pet’s Food Safe Yet? Why pet owners are worried, and why that’s not likely to change soon
By Christie Keith, Special to SF Gate
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
There was a time when dog owners stood in groups at the dog park or debated on e-mail lists arguing about the relative merits of different brands of pet food or the benefits and drawbacks of homemade diets. Now, most pet owners have only one question: How do I know my pet’s food is safe?
The answer, unfortunately, is you don’t. And you probably won’t know any time soon, either.
What started out as a problem with one contaminated ingredient — wheat gluten — from one pet food manufacturer — Menu Foods — sourced from one importer — ChemNutra — has turned into a food recall involving many hundreds of foods, two ingredients sourced from two suppliers (wheat gluten from ChemNutra and rice protein concentrate from Wilbur-Ellis) and millions of perplexed pet owners wondering what to feed their dogs, cats and other pets for dinner.
There are many reasons pet owners aren’t sure what to believe about pet food safety anymore. The biggest is probably that “rolling recalls” and additional sources of potential contamination have led people to worry that today’s safe food is tomorrow’s new recall. Since the first pet food recall was issued more than six weeks ago, on March 16, there have been dozens of additional recalls, seven of them in the last five days.
Dry foods, wet foods, pouched foods and treats have been recalled. Big, corporate-owned companies, small “boutique” companies, chain store foods and health food store brands have all been affected. Some of the contaminated pet food has found its way into livestock feed, and the meat from those animals has gone into the human food supply. The problem gets bigger every day, and no one can predict its ultimate scope.
As big as that is, it’s not the only problem. Consumers, at least those closely following the story, were shocked to discover that the very steps they were being advised to take to protect their pets — read the labels and avoid certain ingredients — weren’t enough.
That’s because at least two of the companies involved in the most recent recall have alleged that the manufacturer that produced their food for them was adding rice protein concentrate to the food without their knowledge — and without that ingredient being listed on the label. This means that consumers hoping to avoid danger by reading ingredients labels can’t rely on that preventive measure anymore. Nor is it enough to buy only from companies you trust; it’s being alleged that some of the affected companies were lied to by their suppliers or the plants they contracted to produce their foods.
Another reason that consumers don’t know what to believe about pet food safety is that the FDA has been constantly using the phrase “16 confirmed deaths” and the media has been repeating it. No matter how that phrase is disclaimed before or after, it trivializes and minimizes the scope of the contamination and its impact, and creates either a false sense of security or, increasingly, a sense of mistrust and skepticism among pet owners.
When reporter Jim Kirshner with WDIV-TV in Detroit asked, at last week’s FDA pet food recall media telebriefing, for an update on the FDA’s “confirmed numbers,” the FDA’s Dr. Daniel McChesney replied, “[I]t’s in the high teens, maybe 17 or 18 that we have confirmed. But again that’s not our focus.”
Kirshner followed up: “At some point will you make a count, take a count, of the number of dogs, cats involved?”
Dr. McChesney responded, “I don’t know. We’ve had multiple, many thousand calls from consumers, and we are looking at that, but I’m not sure we will ever come up with a final number here. It’s just, I just don’t think we can ever get there.”
And yet reporters — even reporters present at that media conference — continue to report that the FDA has only 16, or 18, confirmed deaths. (That number, by the way, is almost entirely comprised of animals who died in Menu’s test labs back in February.) Everyone covering the story knows this, and most of them know the FDA isn’t in the job of confirming animal deaths in the first place. (So why is the question still being asked of, and answered by, the FDA? Because there is no Center for Disease Control or coroner for animal deaths, so there’s really no one else to ask.)
Compounding skepticism even further, the very next day the FDA issued an import alert, stating that “As of April 26, 2007, FDA had received over 17,000 consumer complaints relating to this outbreak, and those complaints included reports of approximately 1950 deaths of cats and 2200 deaths of dogs.” This alert, buried deep on the FDA’s website, only came to light last night, April 30.
Even before those new FDA estimates were made public, authoritative speculation was that pet deaths are somewhere between two and seven thousand, with affected pets as many as 39,000, and veterinary costs between $2 and $20 million to American consumers.
The slow release of information and apparent lack of awareness on the part of FDA spokespeople as to what’s going on in other parts of the agency does nothing to restore the faith of pet owners that the system can protect or even inform them. The FDA’s recall alerts have consistently been days behind the companies’ own releases, and as in this case, even the reports made by bloggers and reporters.
Even worse, sometimes the FDA has information it deliberately withholds. Back on April 18, I received a press release that Wilbur-Ellis, the company that shipped rice protein concentrate possibly contaminated with melamine to pet food manufacturers, had voluntarily recalled the concentrate. They had shipped it, they said, to five pet food manufacturers around the United States. They urged those companies to recall their products made with that concentrate.
They didn’t, however, name the companies. Three of the companies named themselves that day and recalled their foods in response. But the next day, at a press conference, the FDA refused to name the remaining two companies, even though they acknowledged they knew who they were. Don’t worry, they assured us; we’ll tell you as soon as we know anything.
But will they? Last Thursday, at a media telebriefing, reporter (and veterinarian) Dr. Debbye Turner of CBS News asked, “Should we expect any additional voluntary recalls among pet food in the coming days and weeks?” And David Elder, director of the FDA Office of Enforcement, replied: “We aren’t aware of any other potential recalls at this time involving either pet food produced from contaminated wheat gluten or from contaminated rice protein concentrate. As we say time and again, the investigation is open, we continue to follow the trail, but we don’t have anything else that we expect to emerge.”
And yet right before the press conference began, Costco announced a recall of some of its Kirkland Signature dog foods because of melamine contamination in the food — contamination detected, they told me, by the FDA itself.
Which makes me wonder if the FDA found melamine in un-recalled pet foods in its own labs, wouldn’t that be reason enough to expect additional voluntary recalls of pet food in the coming days and weeks?
Within 16 hours of Turner’s question and Elder’s reply, several additional recalls were announced. Seven new recalls, at least one of them prompted by a finding from the FDA’s own testing, were announced within hours of the FDA saying, “[W]e don’t have anything else that we expect to emerge.”
When I asked the FDA’s Michael Herndon why Elder responded as he did to Turner’s question, he said in an e-mail, “We found later that other FDA officials did know about it but Captain Elder didn’t have that information available when the telebriefing began.”
At a press conference about the pet food recall, the leading FDA spokesperson present — the one who answered the question — didn’t know about pending recalls or testing in the FDA’s own labs that should have at the very least caused a glimmer of a hint that additional recalls were in the pipeline? And no one else from the FDA who was present could have corrected him or addressed the question?
It gets worse. The “worry date” of melamine contamination has been pushed back a few times, but latest reports are that contaminated ingredients were first brought into this country as long ago as last July — Costco’s recall covers a manufacture date back to August 2006. And in yesterday’s New York Times, it was reported that melamine contamination of the food supply in China is widespread, openly recognized and financially motivated, and has been going on for years.
From one to two — or more — suspect ingredients, which may or may not be listed on the label. From one manufacturer to many. From a manufacturing period of a few weeks to one of several months, to new worries that it might cover years. An FDA that’s at best slow in communicating what it knows and, at worst, more interested in protecting corporations than the public. Does anyone really wonder why pet owner and consumer confidence is shaken?
Do we want to go back to the days of arguing over which pet food gave our pets shinier coats and brighter eyes, instead of worrying about whether they’ll destroy their kidneys or trigger an international food safety crisis? Do pet food companies want to regain consumer trust? If so, here are a few suggestions.
Government agencies must conduct rigorous and regular inspections of pet food manufacturing plants. At a recent congressional hearing on the recall, it was revealed that only one-third of all pet food manufacturing plants had been inspected in the last three years.
Regulation of pet food must be streamlined, effective and meaningful. Right now, there’s a complicated patchwork of federal, state and industry standards that no one is really coordinating, with loopholes big enough to drive a truck through.
Require industry transparency and accountability. Pet food labels need to be clear, honest and accurate. They should include country-of-origin labeling as well as listing the actual manufacturer of the food and an 800 number to contact them. And if something is present in the food, it needs to be listed on the label.
Veterinarians need to be brought more fully into the human public health system, including the tracking of animal illness on a national level.
The FDA was founded in 1938 with one clear mission: “protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.”
If the organization wants to regain our trust, that’s a really good place to start.