In 2007, a substance called melamine was detected in a wide range of brand name commercial pet foods after large numbers of people began reporting that their dogs and cats were falling ill and dying of kidney failure. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this contaminant, normally used as a flame retardant, industrial binding agent, and even as a fertilizer in some countries, was discovered in vegetable protein products imported from China and mislabeled as wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate for use in pet foods.
Appealing to the law
It’s impossible to determine how many dogs and cats were affected by the tainted foods, since there is no national official tracking system to monitor the deaths of animals, as there is for humans. Whatever the exact numbers, however, Menu Foods and other companies associated with the recalled products have been faced with numerous class-action lawsuits launched by bereaved animal guardians on both sides of the border. Just this past May, the companies agreed to pay out $24 million in compensation to claimants in both the U.S. and Canada, although at the time of writing this article, the court still had to approve the settlement. If it is approved, the money will be used to compensate animal guardians for documented veterinary costs incurred by the tainted food.
Preventing future pet food recalls
While this settlement will certainly be a help, anyone who shares their lives with companion animals will agree that no amount of money can replace a much-loved dog or cat. What’s most important is what is being done to help prevent a crisis like this from happening again.
In May of 2007, in response to the recall, Sen. Richard Durbin and Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced the Human and Pet Safety Food Act (S. 1274/H.R. 2108). Last fall, important elements of this legislation were passed as part of the FDA Amendments Act of 2007. They require that relevant stakeholder groups “by regulation establish processing and ingredient standards…updated standards for the labeling of pet food that includes nutritional information and ingredient information…[and] an early warning and surveillance system to identify contaminations of the pet food supply and outbreaks of illness from pet food.” While this is a big step in the right direction, other key elements were left out of the final bill. “It doesn’t give the FDA authority to order mandatory recalls, nor does it deal with how to look at what’s going on with foreign food systems,” says Mimi Brody of the Humane Society of the United States.
As well, the standards and regulations that were addressed don’t have to be established until 18 months after the date of the act’s passage, which means that even now they are mostly still in the development stage. “The changes we’ve made include an import alert that keep suspect ingredients out of the country, and the closing down of guilty suppliers,” says FDA spokeswoman Laura Bradbard. “In February 2008, as a result of a comprehensive investigation by FDA and USDA, two Chinese nationals and the businesses they operate, along with an American company and its president and chief executive officer, were indicted by a federal grand jury for their roles in a scheme to import products purported to be wheat gluten that were contaminated with melamine.”
The FDA also held a public meeting in May 2008 to obtain input from AAFCO, veterinary medical associations, animal health organizations, pet food manufacturers and other stakeholder groups on the development of pet food ingredient, processing and labeling standards. But it’ll likely be a while before these standards are agreed upon and fully established, let alone implemented.
What about Canada?
In Canada, pet foods are regulated at several levels. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulates imports of pet food for the purposes of disease prevention, while Industry Canada sets regulations that establish basic labeling requirements for pet foods. Following the recall, CFIA “reviewed its pet food responsibilities and programs to determine if there was any room for improvement”, according to its website. It also “issued a border lookout requiring the holding and testing of all shipments of wheat, rice, soy and corn gluten and protein concentrates entering Canada of Chinese origin.” Apart from that, however, little more has been done to ensure the safety of pet food in Canada, or to minimize the risk of other potential contaminants making their way into food.
Taking the lead
Luckily, some pet food companies aren’t waiting for new laws to take effect, but are regulating themselves by implementing changes that will help ensure the quality and safety of their products. One example is Natural Balance, a California-based pet food company that specializes in premium canned and dry diets for dogs and cats.
“The big thing we did was put in a laboratory to test all our foods before they leave the facility,” says company president Joey Herrick. “We originally had four tests, now we have seven, and when we’re done we’ll have ten. No finished product leaves our facility without being tested for melamine, cyanuric acid, aflatoxin, vomitoxin, ochratoxin, zearalenone and fumonisin. The FDA recommends that all pet food companies test for these toxins.” Joey adds that it’s impossible not to include at least some foreign ingredients since so many products are no longer made in North America and have to be imported. “People say don’t buy anything from China, but it doesn’t work that way. So companies really need to do their own testing.”
At the end of the day, what’s the best thing you can do to prevent your dog or cat falling victim to another recall? If in any doubt, contact the company and ask about their screening processes. It’s the best investment you can make in your best friend’s health and well bring.