Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Pet Food Politics

Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine

MARION NESTLE
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 232
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw2m9
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Pet Food Politics
    Book Description:

    Marion Nestle, acclaimed author ofFood Politics,now tells the gripping story of how, in early 2007, a few telephone calls about sick cats set off the largest recall of consumer products in U.S. history and an international crisis over the safety of imported goods ranging from food to toothpaste, tires, and toys. Nestle follows the trail of tainted pet food ingredients back to their source in China and along the supply chain to their introduction into feed for pigs, chickens, and fish in the United States, Canada, and other countries throughout the world. What begins as a problem "merely" for cats and dogs soon becomes an issue of tremendous concern to everyone. Nestle uncovers unexpected connections among the food supplies for pets, farm animals, and people and identifies glaring gaps in the global oversight of food safety.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94198-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-8)

    On March 15, 2007, Menu Foods, a pet food manufacturer based in Canada, informed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the company had decided to issue a massive recall of its products. Something in its foods—later identified as wheat flour laced with melamine—was causing so much damage to the kidneys of cats and dogs that the animals had to be euthanized. The company’s decision, announced the next day, led to what was then the largest recall of consumer products ever recorded in the United States.

    I had a special interest in this particular food recall. Just...

  4. 1 A RECALL TO BREAK ALL RECORDS
    (pp. 9-14)

    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...

  5. 2 A BRIEF HISTORICAL DIGRESSION
    (pp. 15-26)

    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...

  6. 3 THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
    (pp. 27-41)

    The central questions in any scandal are “What did they know?” and “When did they know it?” In this case, because so many companies were involved, each thoroughly committed to protecting its own corporate interests, such questions are especially difficult to answer. As noted in the Introduction, I constructed this version of events from information gleaned from many sources, among them contemporary newspaper accounts, FDA press releases and news conference transcripts, recordings of congressional hearings, company press statements, and, not least, the Internet postings of bloggers. Based on what I could document from public sources, Table 2 at the end...

  7. 4 WHAT IS MENU FOODS?
    (pp. 42-49)

    I am not surprised that pet owners and the general public had never heard of Menu Foods before the recall. This company does not make any products under its own name. In 2007, Menu Foods was a Canadian company based in Streetsville, Ontario. It was the largest of the North American companies that contracted with pet food companies to make wet pet foods sold under private labels. At the time of the recall, Menu Foods held contracts to make a remarkably large proportion of these products: 75% of the private-label wet pet foods in Canada and more than 40% of...

  8. 5 MENU’S MUDDLED RESPONSE: WHAT, WHEN, AND WHERE
    (pp. 50-54)

    Menu Foods gave investors plenty of reasons to lose confidence, starting with its inability to contain the scope of the recall. The company restricted the March 16 recall to products made at its two American plants within certain dates. As Menu gradually uncovered details about the distribution of the wheat gluten, it expanded the number of products that needed to be recalled (the “what”), the dates on which they were produced (the “when”), and the places that produced them (the “where”).

    The original recall affected cuts-and-gravy products in cans or pouches marketed under 95 labels (“what”), produced between December 3,...

  9. 6 THE CAT AND DOG BODY COUNT
    (pp. 55-60)

    The veterinary care system in the United States is not the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the time of the recall, it had no system in place for collecting information from private veterinary practices about illnesses in pets or for disseminating warnings to veterinarians about emerging health hazards. On March 24, theSacramento Beepublished an account of the results of Menu’s palatability tests, with details of the extent of illnesses and deaths among the cats and dogs involved in those trials. TheBeereporter, Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, wrote the account on the basis of an e-mail message...

  10. 7 A TOXIC FALSE ALARM: AMINOPTERIN
    (pp. 61-62)

    Menu’s reluctance to recall every product that might contain suspicious wheat gluten is understandable for business reasons. Recalls are expensive and generate miserably unfavorable publicity. The company didn’t want to issue a recall if it didn’t have to. Something—perhaps in the food but perhaps not—was making cats sick, but what could it be? Menu Foods must have suspected right away that something was wrong with the wheat gluten because it ordered shipments to be stopped 10 days before the recall, but attempts by the palatability testing company to identify a toxin had failed.

    After hearing about the deaths...

  11. 8 AT LAST THE CULPRIT: MELAMINE
    (pp. 63-68)

    By this time, the FDA had established an emergency operations center to collect information from the 400 people in its 20 district offices and field laboratories who were said to be devoting at least some of their time to gathering samples of pet foods, monitoring how well the recall was working, and collecting consumer complaints. If additional hordes of scientists at pet food companies or universities were trying to find out what had gone wrong, they were not talking about it publicly. Later, P&G scientists said that their laboratory colleagues first heard about problems with Iams pet foods on March...

  12. 9 MELAMINE: A SOURCE OF DIETARY NITROGEN
    (pp. 69-76)

    Any old-timer familiar with the history of farm feeds in the United States could guess right away why melamine was added to wheat gluten and why its addition was likely to be anything but accidental. Melamine is an industrial chemical which, when mixed with formaldehyde, forms polymers that can be made into hard plastic dinnerware. This process generates wastewater containing melamine and its by-products, one of which is a related chemical, cyanuric acid. To clean the wastewater and allow it to be recycled, these compounds are reconstituted into “scrap” containing a mix of melamine, cyanuric acid, and other melamine by-products....

  13. 10 MELAMINE: A FRAUDULENT ADULTERANT, BUT PUZZLING
    (pp. 77-80)

    Decades ago, whatever might have been known about the dangers of melamine as a source of non-protein nitrogen did not stop anyone from using it as an adulterant. Indeed, its use for fraudulent purposes was so common in the 1970s that Italian investigators were inspired to develop assay methods to test for the mellifluous “melammina” in meat by-product meals intended as animal feed. Once the scientists had worked out the methods, they used the new tests to examine fish meal products. They quickly identified melamine in more than half—56%—of the fish meal samples they examined. The Italian scientists...

  14. 11 HOW MUCH MELAMINE WAS IN THE PET FOOD?
    (pp. 81-82)

    If 63 mg/kg is definitely safe and, as we have seen, 250 mg/kg is not safe for some proportion of animals, just how much melamine were cats and dogs consuming when they ate the adulterated pet foods? If the FDA or pet food companies were measuring the amounts of melamine in the various brands of pet foods, they were not disclosing what they seemed to be treating as another trade secret. But FDA officials did give some clues. As I mentioned earlier, during the FDA teleconference on April 5, Dr. Stephen Sundlof told reporters that melamine was present in the...

  15. 12 MYSTERY SOLVED: CYANURIC ACID
    (pp. 83-87)

    By April 20, three groups of scientists—from the University of Guelph and from Cornell and Michigan State universities—had identified yet another compound that was not supposed to be in the wheat gluten: cyanuric acid. Cyanuric acid, as noted earlier, is a by-product of melamine. It is used industrially to stabilize solutions for chlorinating swimming pools and hot tubs and can be made either through chemical processes or the action of bacteria. Pure cyanuric acid, according to South African scientists of the 1960s, was not at all toxic when fed to sheep even at enormous doses, and it worked...

  16. 13 THE CHINA CONNECTION
    (pp. 88-96)

    Menu Foods initially suspected that something might be wrong with the wheat gluten in its pet foods because the ingredient came from a new source. Menu had recently switched suppliers and in November 2006 began buying wheat gluten from ChemNutra. ChemNutra did not actually manufacture the ingredients it sold. It got them from China.

    ChemNutra’s very business is to import food and feed ingredients from China. The company explains on its website that its expertise is as “the China source experts.” At the time of the recall, ChemNutra promised its clients “ultra-competitive” prices and the skills to “bridge the [Chinese]...

  17. 14 MORE MELAMINE: RICE AND CORN “PROTEINS”
    (pp. 97-104)

    In Act I, the distribution of melamine-laced wheat flour sold as wheat gluten began with unidentified manufacturers in China and ended with pet foods fed to cats and dogs in the United States. Complex as it is (see Chapter 3), the chain of distribution thus far turns out to be woefully incomplete. For Act II, we must return to early April and introduce yet another distributor of Chinese ingredients, the San Francisco—based Wilbur-Ellis Company. On April 4, Wilbur-Ellis found a bag labeled “melamine” in one of its shipments of another food ingredient imported from China, rice protein concentrate. This...

  18. 15 MORE MELAMINE EATERS: FARM ANIMALS AND PEOPLE
    (pp. 105-113)

    Following the trail of distribution of the fraudulent wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate is complicated by the ubiquity of these ingredients in human foods. Protein ingredients are used as thickening and coloring agents in foods as diverse as baby foods, breads, cereals, pizza dough, mustards, soy sauce, malt vinegar, protein shakes, energy bars, salad dressings, and soup mixes. So an important reason—perhaps the main reason—the FDA devoted time and resources to the pet food recalls was to prevent whatever was causing kidney failure in cats and dogs from getting into the human food supply.

    As then Assistant...

  19. 16 THE FDA’S RESPONSE
    (pp. 114-122)

    How the FDA handled the pet food recalls must be understood in the context of its limited resources and consequent need to prioritize, issues that I discuss in greater detail in Chapter 19. From the FDA’s standpoint, its staff did everything possible to ensure public trust. At a meeting in November, Robert Brackett, then director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said something like this (a paraphrase based on my notes):

    The FDA was stunned by the consumer response. Usually FDA consumer hotlines get 20 calls a day. This was hundreds or thousands a day. The FDA...

  20. 17 REPERCUSSION #1: CHINA’S FOOD SAFETY SYSTEM
    (pp. 123-132)

    China is so large in population and developing so rapidly that keeping up with events in that country is a formidable undertaking. But anyone who knows anything about the history of food safety in the United States will recognize what is happening with food safety in China. In the light of history, the fraudulent addition of melamine to wheat flour is neither unusual nor shocking. It is precisely the kind of fraud perpetrated by food producers in the United States in the heady years of booming commercial development prior to 1906. That year, of course, was the turning point in...

  21. 18 REPERCUSSION #2: THE CHINA BACKLASH
    (pp. 133-142)

    Back in the United States, the recalls stimulated a backlash against imported foods in general, and those imported from China especially. Congressman John Dingell (Democrat, Michigan) put it bluntly: “The country is awash in dangerous food coming in from China and other places.” Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, one of the chief negotiators of trade policy with China, said: “Right now product and food safety is the No. 1 issue.” Some large companies, such as Mission Foods and Tyson Foods, announced bans on all Chinese ingredients in their products. To some observers, the bans sounded more like politics than reality, as...

  22. 19 REPERCUSSION #3: THE FDA IN CRISIS
    (pp. 143-155)

    If the FDA could not keep contaminated ingredients out of pet foods, was it capable of protecting the human food supply? William Hubbard, a former FDA official, could not have expressed the need to strengthen food safety oversight more clearly: “I do think this pet food thing has shown people, including people at the very highest levels of the administration, that something needs to be fixed. If this is not a wake-up call, then people are so asleep they are catatonic.”

    Indeed, “this pet food thing” publicly exposed what food safety experts have been saying for years. The FDA is...

  23. 20 REPERCUSSION #4: PET FOOD POLITICS
    (pp. 156-174)

    Advocates for the safety of the human food supply consistently call for standard safety procedures to be applied to all foods, from farm to table. These, we say, should be administered by a single food safety agency that encompasses the present oversight functions of the FDA, USDA, and other federal agencies. Advocates for pets want nothing less for pet foods. The pet food recalls demonstrated why such proposals deserve serious consideration.

    The commercial pet food industry, however, deeply distrusts and opposes the idea of further regulation. In April, the president of the Pet Food Institute, a trade association for...

  24. APPENDIX: THE MELAMINE RECALLS LIST
    (pp. 175-180)
  25. NOTES
    (pp. 181-204)
  26. LIST OF TABLES AND FIGURES
    (pp. 205-206)
  27. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 207-208)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 209-219)
  29. Back Matter
    (pp. 220-220)