It’s been ten years since the huge pet food recall that sickened thousands of dogs and cats. How has pet food safety improved – or not – since then?
Pet food recalls have been a trending topic for decades. Reasons range from salmonella contamination to high sodium levels to traces of mold. Our first reaction may be to blame the manufacturer, but many pet food companies have taken steps to upgrade their facilities and improve testing protocols. So why do pet food recalls keep occurring?
A brief history
Let’s compare today’s industry with that of the past. The massive pet food recall of 2007 was the biggest in North American history. Thousands of dogs and cats became ill, and many died from kidney failure, due to contaminated products distributed by Menu Foods. Over 60 million cans and bags of pet food were recalled. The culprit turned out to be a chemical called melamine, found in wheat gluten imported from China. While melamine is used as a fertilizer and in the production of plastic, it’s relatively non-toxic when ingested in trace amounts. However, it was speculated that cyanuric acid (which is commonly used in pet food) combined with the melamine created the harmful compound that made pets ill. But logistics aside, how and why did melamine get into the wheat gluten to begin with?
Who was to blame?
Less than a year after the recall, two Chinese nationals and the businesses they operated, along with the American company, ChemNutra, and its CEO, pleaded guilty to being involved in the distribution of products containing melamine. It was later discovered that adding melamine-containing wheat gluten to food products, as a way to boost their apparent protein levels, was a practice that had been going on in China for years. Some speculate that the two Chinese nationals were essentially “scapegoats”.
The Human and Pet Food Safety Act
The melamine in the wheat gluten was not caught until it was too late because there were no quality standards for the ingredients going into the pet food. There was also no process in place to ensure ingredients shipped from foreign distributers didn’t contain unsafe substances.
In an effort to avoid another disaster like the 2007 recall, Congress unveiled The Human and Pet Food Safety Act. It required the FDA to:
- Write quality standards for all pet food ingredients
- Strengthen labeling rules
- Establish an early warning system and post searchable online recall lists.
So far, however, the FDA has not met these requirements.
“All three of these tasks were required to be completed by September of 2009,” says Susan Thixton, pet food safety advocate and author of Buyer Beware. “To date, the only thing the FDA has completed is the Safety Reporting Portal, a website that streamlines the process of reporting product safety issues to the FDA and NIH. So we are basically in the same spot we were nine years ago.”
The problem with Chinese ingredients
In the wake of the 2007 recall, the FDA ordered the detainment of all untested vegetable protein imported from China. But within months of the disaster, many commercial pet food companies once again began turning to China for grain additives in a desperate effort to lower costs. As poor quality pet foods are processed, the ingredients lose a lot of their nutritional value, necessitating the addition of vitamins and minerals as well as cheap protein “fillers” comprised mostly of corn, wheat, soy and rice. China is the cheapest place to source these ingredients.
Even if a pet food is labeled “Made in the US” or “Made in Canada”, it can still contain ingredients imported from a foreign producer. Labeling laws don’t require companies to list where their ingredients come from, so no matter what the package says there’s no way to ensure the ingredients weren’t sourced from elsewhere.
Some producers in China engage in farming and manufacturing practices that the FDA would not approve if they held them to the same guidelines as they do US producers. Investigations following the 2007 recall revealed improper use and handling of dangerous pesticides, inadequate health and safety training, and insufficient environmental regulations. The result? Dicey ingredients with insufficient quality testing. China may be working to clean up their act, but so far it hasn’t stopped the complaints from rolling in.
North of the border, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulates imported pet food, and Industry Canada regulates labeling requirements. However, while the CFIA assumes primary responsibility for all pet food imports and has strict conditions that must be met before importation to Canada, it works closely with other governments and associations, including AAFCO, throughout the process. Overall, Canada sees fewer pet food recalls than the U.S., and the majority of products recalled are from the U.S. (not all that surprising since the majority of foods in Canada are made in the U.S.)
In January, 2015, Petco, a national pet retailer, ceased sales of all dog and cat treats made in China. Though the FDA hasn’t successfully been able to verify the connection, the agency targeted the treats after receiving nearly 5,000 complaints of pets becoming sick after eating Chinese jerky and rawhide treats. Proof or no proof, Petco became the first major retailer to recognize this risk and take action. But, unfortunately, Chinese ingredients aren’t the only thing pet owners need to be concerned about.
Over the past decade, there’s been a lot of discussion and protest surrounding the presence of 4-D meats in pet food; that is, meat from dead, dying, diseased and disabled animals.
“The FDA openly allows pet food to be sourced from diseased or non-slaughtered animals – this is a direct violation of federal law,” says Thixton. “The FDA doesn’t care about that – they only care about a pet food making a human sick.”
Indeed, the FDA itself says on its website that “pet food consisting of material from diseased animals or animals which have died otherwise than by slaughter…will be considered fit for animal consumption.” This despite the fact that the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act legally requires that no food source deemed adulterated (containing any part of a diseased animal or non-slaughtered animal) be used for human or animal consumption.
The FDA interprets this law very differently, stating that they believe the law does not intend to hold animal food/pet food to the same standard as human food: “The Center for Veterinary Medicine does not believe that Congress intended the Act to preclude application of different standards to human and animal foods” (fda.gov/ICECI/ComplianceManuals/CompliancePolicyGuidanceManual/ucm074717.htm).
Recently, Thixton took action against this obvious misinterpretation of the law, which the Supreme Court does not allow as long as the original law is clearly written. She filed a Citizen Petition requesting the FDA to stop illegal waste ingredient pet food. The FDA was given 90 days to respond.
In addition to this petition, which she announced on October 28, 2016, Thixton filed a similar complaint with the FDA’s overseeing office, the Office of Inspector General of U.S. Health and Human Services, as well as a request of action to The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Board of Directors, an association composed of local, state and federal agencies responsible for regulating the sale and distribution of animal feeds.
“The next step,” Thixton says, “will be a lawsuit”.
Follow us at facebook.com/AnimalWellnessMagazine for updates on Thixton’s petition.
Are reported problems being acted on?
Thixton’s petition begs the question: what, exactly, has the FDA done to lower the number of pet food recalls that occur? While there is still no federal agency responsible for tracking or responding to outbreaks of food-borne disease in companion animals, the melamine incident forced the FDA and state officials to come up with a faster way to protect pets in case of pet food related recalls. With this goal in mind, the FDA launched PETNet, a website designed to facilitate a smoother exchange of information between federal, state and local agencies.
“PETNet helps but it only makes it easier for consumers to report problems,” says Thixton. “Illnesses linked to a pet food can only be prevented if investigations are done based on those reports. We don’t know if that happens because there is no transparency with PETNet. The system as it stands is flawed. Without working directly with ‘the front line’ — veterinarians, pet stores and consumers – only a tiny bit of information is ever received by the FDA. And no one but the FDA knows what that tiny bit of information is – we don’t know whether they investigate or ignore reports.”
The raw debate continues…
Lately, the news has been abuzz with the debate over raw food diets for pets – a diet many consider biologically appropriate for dogs and cats. This health movement has caused much discussion surrounding the risk of salmonella and other contaminants that pose a threat not only to pets, but to the humans handling the products. The FDA has claimed that they have a “zero-tolerance policy for salmonella in pet food”. In other words, they intend to act upon any reported contamination. Of course, raw diets should be thawed in the refrigerator and handled similarly to other raw meat. Proper handling tips for raw pet food can also be found on the FDA website: fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/AnimalHealthLiteracy/ucm373757.htm.
On the positive side, certain measures have been taken recently to limit illness outbreaks. On April 6, 2016, the FDA finalized the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rule on Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food, protecting pet food from contamination during transportation. According to the FDA website, “the goal of this rule is to prevent practices during transportation that create food safety risks, such as failure to properly refrigerate food, inadequate cleaning of vehicles between loads, and failure to properly protect food.” This final rule addresses a few of the inadequacies of the Sanitary Food Transportation Act of 2005. Though the new rules don’t apply to transportation overseas due to limitations of the law, at least it’s a start.
Even baby steps are making a difference. The incidents of pet food recalls are decreasing despite the remaining obstacles within the industry. In the meantime, you can help protect your dog or cat from becoming a victim of a food-borne illness. Educating yourself about healthy pet food choices and staying informed about the latest recalls will help ensure your animal companions stay safe.
Protecting your pet
- The best thing you can do is steer clear of cheap commercial pet foods and give him the highest quality diet you can afford. It’s true that even premium foods can sometimes be recalled, but it happens less often than it does with low end pet foods made from questionable ingredients. Look for diets that are domestically sourced and manufactured from natural whole foods, free of by-products, meat meals, vegetable proteins and glutens. And don’t be afraid to contact the manufacturer and ask questions if you’re still concerned about where and how they make their pet foods.
- Education is also key. Keeping yourself abreast of what’s going on in the way of pet food recalls and safety can help protect your pet, and those of your friends and family. Websites such as truthaboutpetfood.com can help you stay current with recent news and developments, find healthy pet food choices, and read articles by holistic vets. The FDA website also posts all pet food recalls on their website at fda.gov/animalveterinary/safetyhealth/recallswithdrawals/.
Emily Watson is a staff writer for Animal Wellness Magazine and Canadian Dogs Annual. She is a certified yoga and medical Qi Gong instructor and has been writing — creatively and otherwise — for ten years. Off the mat and away from the keyboard, Emily can be found hiking, camping and travelling with her wife and fur babies.