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Pet Food Politics
The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine
By Marion Nestle
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2008 Marion Nestle
All rights reserved.
A RECALL TO BREAK ALL RECORDS
On or about February 20, 2007, a Canadian manufacturer of pet foods, Menu Foods Income Trust, received a call on the toll-free customer service line listed on the labels of the products it manufactures. A customer was calling to complain that a cat had developed kidney problems soon after eating one of the company's foods. A second call with a similar complaint arrived a week later. As is customary practice for dealing with such complaints, the firm contacted the veterinarians who were treating the cats. The veterinarians suggested that the cats, both of which had been adopted as strays, might have wandered off and gotten into something like antifreeze. A third call on March 5 reported the death of a cat from kidney failure but Menu was unable to contact its veterinarian. Two more reports of similarly sick cats came in on March 6 and 7.
While these calls were trickling in, and apparently by coincidence, the company that Menu Foods hires to test the palatability of its pet foods began conducting its routine quarterly taste trials. Pet food manufacturers order such trials to find out whether cats and dogs are willing to eat foods with new ingredients, and whether the animals prefer to eat that company's foods or those made by competitors. This testing company ran palatability tests for Menu Foods every three months or so. Because some Americans strongly disapprove of animal experimentation (especially when it involves dogs and cats) and are not shy about making their opinions known, the laboratories that do such work tend to keep a low profile. The identity of this particular testing company has not been publicly disclosed.
The anonymous company's palatability testing began on February 27 and involved 40 to 50 cats and dogs in at least three separate concurrent trials. The first trial offered 20 cats a choice of a product made by Menu Foods or one produced by another company. On the third day of that trial, the testing company reported that three of the 20 cats were sick with kidney disease. In the second trial, also involving 20 cats, three were ill with kidney disease, and one was so sick that it had to be euthanized. As it happened, either it or one of the other sick cats was more than 16 years old.
Later, in explaining to Congress why his company was not alarmed by these initial findings, Menu Foods' president and chief executive officer, Paul Henderson, noted that the cats had participated in tests of foods produced by at least two other manufacturers, and that all were at least ten years old, implying that they were susceptible to kidney disease anyway. His company, Henderson told Congress, had no reason to think that its foods were making cats sick.
Nevertheless, Henderson told Congress, "out of an abundance of caution," the company "stepped up" its investigation. It identified several ingredients common to the foods that the sick cats had been eating, among them the amino acids glycine and taurine (normal components of protein), "digest" (a meat-based flavoring ingredient), caramel color, salt, and wheat gluten. Of these, only wheat gluten seemed suspicious. Menu Foods had recently changed suppliers and was getting this ingredient from a new source.
About wheat gluten: this substance is a mixture of proteins extracted from wheat fl our by repeatedly washing away the starch. In the human food supply, it is sometimes called wheat meat, vegetarian meat substitute, or seitan. In pet foods, wheat gluten has three functions: it adds protein, binds other ingredients, and thickens gravy-style foods. Recently, the extraction process had become so expensive that most American companies no longer made wheat gluten. By 2006, about 80% of the wheat gluten purchased by American companies came from companies in Europe, Australia, or Asia. That year, American companies bought 14% of their wheat gluten from China, twice the amount purchased just one year earlier.
In November 2006, Menu Foods switched suppliers and began to buy wheat gluten from ChemNutra, a company based in Las Vegas, from which it had previously obtained other pet food ingredients. Alarmed or not, Menu Foods halted shipments from ChemNutra on March 6, and two days later informed that company that there might be a problem with its wheat gluten.
The next day, March 9, the palatability testing company reported that it had been forced to euthanize four sick cats from the first study and two more from the second study, and that nine more cats from the first study were sick. This meant that seven of the 20 cats in the first study were dead—a death rate of 35%. Menu Foods was sufficiently concerned to initiate a serious investigation. It asked the palatability testing company to check the pet foods for substances that could be harmful if present at excessive levels: minerals, heavy metals, antifreeze, vitamin D, fl uorine, mold, and microbes. Menu also sent samples of the foods to the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell University for analysis but did not mention the deaths or concerns about kidney disease. The company just told the laboratory at Cornell that cats were refusing to eat the foods and asked it to test for pesticides and insecticides. When the tests revealed nothing unusual, Menu sent Cornell more food samples as well as samples of tissues and urine from the sick cats. But the Cornell laboratory found nothing unusual in these samples either.
On March 13, Procter & Gamble (P&G), the large home-products company that owns two high-end brands of pet food, Iams and Eukanuba, informed Menu Foods that it had received calls from three customers about "renal issues" in cats, one of which had died of kidney failure. The cats had become ill soon after eating specific lots of Iams foods manufactured at the Menu Foods' plant in Emporia, Kansas. P&G's in-house veterinarian contacted Menu, learned that wheat gluten was coming from a new supplier, and by March 14 was alarmed enough to have the company suspend production of Iams foods made at that plant. At 8:30 that night, P&G informed Menu that it would be ordering a recall of foods made at the Emporia plant since December 17, 2006—the earliest date of production of the specific Iams products mentioned in consumer complaints to P&G.
The next afternoon, March 15, Menu notified the FDA that something in its products, most likely the wheat gluten, seemed to be causing kidney failure in cats and that the company intended to issue a recall. Finally, on March 16, nearly one month after the first reports of cat deaths, Menu Foods announced a recall of foods made at its plant in Emporia and, as a precaution, those made at its plant in Pennsauken, New Jersey. It chose December 3, 2006, as the starting date because foods mentioned in the consumer complaints to the Menu Foods call number were first produced during that week. The astonishing upshot was that Menu Foods would be pulling from the market more than 60 million cans and small foil pouches of "cuts-and-gravy" style dog and cat foods.
Although this was the largest pet food recall in history—and, indeed, the largest recall of any consumer product recorded at the time—it amounted to just 1% of the totality of canned, pouched, and kibble-style pet foods available on the market. Despite the tiny percentage, the recall surely came as a sharp shock to investors; Menu Foods estimated that this action might cost the company as much as $40 million (Canadian). As we will see, this guess was a substantial underestimate.
But the most profound shock was to pet owners. The recall affected pet foods marketed under the most trusted brand names, all of them made by a company unknown to consumers. Menu Foods, the recall revealed, was the largest North American manufacturer of private-label "wet" pet foods, those packaged in cans or pouches. Its products were widely distributed and sold by supermarkets, mass merchandisers, and pet supply retailers. Indeed, Menu Foods manufactured canned and pouched foods for nearly all—17 of the top 20—North American pet food retailers under a breathtaking array of brand names. Menu's plant in Emporia alone produced 42 brands of cat food and 53 brands of dog food. These ranged from the cheapest brands, such as the Ol' Roy foods sold at Wal-Mart stores, to P&G's premium Iams and Eukanuba labels (the complete list of recalled brands is given in the Appendix). Yet here these brands were, all lumped together in one recall, all made at exactly the same place, all with virtually identical ingredients, and all made by one manufacturer. And at least one of these ingredients was causing cats to die of kidney failure or to become so sick with kidney disease that the animals had to be euthanized.CHAPTER 2
A BRIEF HISTORICAL DIGRESSION
The Menu Foods recall was by no means the first time a pet food company was forced to announce publicly that something was so badly wrong with its products that pets could not eat them without risk of harm. Recalls, it seems, are not all that uncommon. When the need for them occurs, companies are supposed to contact the FDA, the agency responsible for regulating food safety, and work with that agency to issue a recall, make sure the product is no longer for sale, and destroy the recalled stocks. Occasionally, the FDA does its own testing of pet food samples and finds evidence of microbial contamination or other hazards. On such occasions, the FDA encourages the companies to voluntarily recall the products.
Note my choice of words. The FDA has to ask companies for a voluntary recall. At the time of these events, the FDA did not have the authority to order a company to recall hazardous products. All it could do was to encourage the company to take responsibility, warn the public not to buy the products, and alert retailers of the need to remove the products from shelves. As the FDA explains in its written advisories, "There is no statutory authority for recalls. All recalls are therefore voluntary on the part of the recalling firm." An FDA official explained to me that conversations with companies about the need for a recall could sometimes become rather strained. As a last resort, the FDA can threaten to go public with its concerns, but it rarely needs to. In truly extreme cases, the FDA can go to court and argue for injunctions or file criminal charges, but what would be the point? By the time such tedious legal processes could be completed, the products would have long been sold and eaten.
Nevertheless, from 1995 through 2007, the FDA issued a dozen or more warnings to consumers or notices of voluntary recalls of pet foods. Also during those years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned pet owners to avoid feeding a food recalled from the human supply—in this case, peanut butter—to their dogs or cats. And although the company never issued a formal recall, Wal-Mart in 2007 quietly removed some potentially hazardous products from shelves. This collection of incidents is summarized in Table 1. The table also lists one additional recall relevant to this story—a recall of Mars dog and cat foods in Asia in 2004.
As is evident from the table, a number of the pet food recalls were international. They involved products made in Canada, the United States, China, and Thailand, or ingredients imported from China and Chile. Some pet foods recalled in the United States had already been shipped to any number of foreign countries. The recalls affected a wide range of pet foods—those intended for dogs and cats; packaged in cans, pouches, boxes, or bags; and with the contents wet, dry, or frozen raw. Several of the incidents involved contamination with Salmonella bacteria. Even if a particular strain of Salmonella is not toxic enough to make animals or people sick, its mere presence is an indicator of fecal contamination and suggests that the foods were produced under conditions of inadequate sanitation. Among this motley collection of recalls, a few offer especially instructive lessons.
Petcurean Pet Nutrition is a firm based in British Columbia that makes Go! Natural pet foods and markets them as "wholesome foods for a healthy life." In June 2003, Petcurean recruited Merrick Pet Care to manufacture its products in the United States. In October, after hearing complaints of acute liver failure among pets eating its products, Petcurean issued a recall. Eventually, 48 dogs and 10 cats were affected, and clinical investigations suggested that the animals died from liver disease resulting from the effects of immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, a relatively common condition in dogs that occurs when they make antibodies against their own blood cells. This type of anemia has multiple causes. The FDA tested the foods for a large number of probable causes but found none.
But the FDA did find BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), an anti oxidant preservative often used in food products. Agency investigators observed "overformulations" of BHA four to 13 times higher than is usual in some of the foods. But, they said, BHA is not particularly toxic and "no adverse effects would be expected even at these elevated (4–13X) levels." The FDA's unsatisfactory conclusion: "a definitive cause of the ill effects in the dogs and cats has not been determined" and "may never be known."
The sick pets had eaten foods purchased from a retailer in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pet Food Express. This company accounted for 80% of the sales of Go! Natural products in the United States. After the recall, Pet Food Express paid rebates and veterinary bills for customers who had purchased Petcurean products at its stores. As often happens with recalls, litigation followed. But the lack of a known cause of the pet illnesses created a murky legal situation. So did the "manufacturing deviation"; Go! Natural did not list the decidedly unnatural BHA as an ingredient on its product labels.
Pet owners filed class-action suits against Petcurean and Pet Food Express for negligence; these suits were thrown out of court. Pet Food Express sued Petcurean and Merrick for recovery of the costs of the refunds and veterinary care. The case was settled out of court and "resolved in its entirety" in November 2007, four years after the recall. Moral: it is not easy to prove that a pet food causes illness, and litigation over such matters is often a slow process.
Even when the cause can be found, recalls almost always come too late to do any good. Prior to the Menu Foods recall, the largest previous recall involved products made by Diamond Pet Foods. Late in 2005, some of Diamond's dog foods containing corn ingredients were found to be contaminated with aflatoxin, a toxin produced by a fungus, Aspergillus flavus, which proliferates on wet grains. This toxin causes liver failure. Perhaps as many as 100 dogs became sick or died from liver disease before the products containing the fungus-infected corn could be identified and recalled. Investigations by the FDA revealed that the company had no record of testing 12 corn shipments for aflatoxin in 2005. Although the company said it had done nothing illegal, it agreed early in 2008 to a $3.1 million settlement of a class-action suit. The fund compensates owners for loss of their dogs, veterinary expenses, the cost of unreturned contaminated food, and attorneys' fees. Here, the lesson has to do with the substantial cost of legal settlements, even relatively small ones.
Mars Petcare, 2007
Federal agencies worry most about Salmonella contamination because these bacteria can make people sick—sometimes very sick. What makes Salmonella an especially troublesome pathogen is that the bacteria do not necessarily cause cats or dogs to become ill. But people who handle the foods, or who handle animals infected with Salmonella, can become sick, especially if they have weakened or immature immune systems. Children and the elderly are at highest risk, a feature that was clearly demonstrated in an outbreak of a particular type of Salmonella, "serotype Schwarzengrund," in 2007. Infections with this Salmonella species sickened 66 individuals—and 39% of them were infants.
Excerpted from Pet Food Politics by Marion Nestle. Copyright © 2008 Marion Nestle. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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