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A year after pet food recall, still buyer beware

How much safer is the pet food supply today? That's largely anyone's guess, experts say.
/ Source: contributor

One year after contaminated pet food killed potentially thousands of dogs and cats, few safety measures have gone into effect.

While pet food safety legislation has been passed and an industry commission has made recommendations to improve the safety and quality standards for pet food, some critics say the efforts, even when they are fully implemented, may not amount to much more than the fox guarding the hen house.

The federal legislation, for instance, relies on manufacturers to voluntarily recall contaminated pet food. “As long as it’s voluntary, there will always be breaches,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of the forthcoming book “Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine,” due out in September. “There will be breaches anyway, but voluntary doesn’t work as well as regulated.”

Because there is no national tracking system that monitors pet deaths, there is no definitive tally of animals that died from consuming pet food made with imported Chinese ingredients tainted with the chemical melamine.

In the month after the biggest pet food recall in U.S. history began last March 16, the Food and Drug Administration received more than 14,000 consumer complaints about pet foods. In the end, the FDA never reported more than the first 14 deaths — nine of which were lab animals for pet food manufacturer Menu Foods, plus four cats and one dog reported by consumers.

Meanwhile, the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians is performing an ongoing study that as yet has certified 226 deaths. And just last month, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Kansas indicted two Chinese businesses and the U.S. company ChemNutra for allegedly introducing adulterated food into the market, asserting that consumer reports suggest as many as 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs died after eating contaminated food.

"I still hold by the estimate that thousands died and tens of thousands were affected," says veterinarian Paul Pion, president and co-founder of Veterinary Information Network, an independent veterinary medical information service. "My bet is that it happens more often than we think and it never gets detected."

‘Not an overnight process’ Veterinarian Kimberly May, assistant director of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s department of professional and public affairs, says over the past year the industry has become more aware of what needs to be done and where safety measures were deficient. "It’s not an overnight process, so whether you can say enough has been done, I’m not sure anybody would say that at this point, but there are definitely good strides in that direction."

Image: Sick dog, MArch 2007 pet food recall
** FILE ** Pebbles, the Yorkshire terrier that became a symbol of the national pet food scare is shown in this, March 21, 2007 file photo, at Collett Veterinary Clinic in Los Angeles. Pebbles died Thursday while being treated for kidney failure that developed after she ate some of the suspect food. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, file)Reed Saxon / AP

Kurt Gallagher, director of communications and export development for the Pet Food Institute in Washington, D.C., which represents pet food manufacturers, says PFI is working on the recommendations made by its National Pet Food Commission in October. Those recommendations include working with retailers and the FDA to develop better ways to remove recalled pet foods from stores and to inform pet owners about recalled foods.

The FDA Amendments Act of 2007 requires the agency to set up an early warning system to identify contaminated pet food and outbreaks of illness associated with pet food and to work with industry representatives, veterinarians and other interested parties to establish pet food ingredient standards and definitions, processing standards and updated labeling requirements for nutritional and ingredient information. The agency has one year from the passage of the legislation, last September, to implement the early warning system and two years to establish standards and definitions. The FDA did not grant requests for an interview on the progress of these efforts.

Call for stronger enforcement While the legislation sounds good, some say it lacks bite because it doesn’t provide the FDA with mandatory recall authority. That means that with the exception of medical devices, infant formula and biological products, the FDA can only encourage companies to initiate voluntary recalls.

May says mandatory recall authority for the FDA would be a positive step.

“It was incumbent on the companies to make the decision [to recall foods], and some of them maybe weren’t moving as quickly in that direction as others,” she says. “If the FDA could actually direct that process, I think that would be of benefit.”

In addition to the requirements set down in last year’s legislation, an agreement was signed in December between the U.S. and China to improve the safety of certain imported products, including pet food and treats — but the limited agreement relies primarily on China to police product safety.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Chinese producers will register with Chinese authorities, and Chinese regulators will certify that foods covered by the agreement meet U.S. standards. FDA inspectors gain broader access to Chinese production facilities, and each government must notify the other within 48 hours of any significant risks to public health.

Some pet owners skeptical, tooPet owners spent $16.2 billion last year on food for their animals, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. But regardless of government and industry plans and promises, last year's scare left many pet owners skeptical about pet food safety and has fueled demand for organic products and interest in homemade food.

Teri Fields of Lubbock, Texas, says the recall prompted her to never trust what she was being told about a dog food or even human food. “There are simply too many products coming into this country that can’t be checked thoroughly," she says. "I am terrified at the thought of feeding my dogs something that ends up hurting them, and I think about it every time I give them a treat or feed them dinner. It definitely continues to concern me and other dog owners that I know.”

In Seattle, Ben Huh, founder of pet Web site Itchmo, which was among the blogs that kept the pet food recall in the news, says the recall changed the way he and his wife, Emily, fed Nemo, their miniature poodle mix. “We’ve done a lot of research and we have pet food companies that we trust, but unfortunately the amount of information that’s available out there really hasn’t increased that much.”

A slog through the miles of aisles at last month’s Global Pet Expo in San Diego turned up more than 20 companies touting foods they described as natural, human-grade or organic. That’s a trend that’s been growing for several years, along with homemade foods for pets, and the recall helped it along.

“Many customers changed pet food brands after the recall and have been selecting alternatives that take a more natural approach,” says veterinary nutritionist Sally C. Perea with Davis Veterinary Medical Consulting in Davis, Calif. “We have definitely seen an increased interest in pet owners who have elected to home-cook for their pets and are seeking advice on the most appropriate way to balance a home-cooked diet.”

Among them is Sara Romans of Orlando, Fla., who has Cavalier King Charles spaniels. "Because of the recall, I started making my own food and using vitamin and mineral supplements,” she says. “I will never feel truly safe and believe much more should be done to ensure there are no more problems.”

Golden retriever owner Bob Kurtz of Fairfax, Va., gave up standard pet food and now feeds his dogs a commercial raw diet. It’s not immune from recalls — nothing in life is guaranteed, after all — but Kurtz is now much less worried about what goes into his pets' mouths.

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.