The real cause of the deaths of cats and dogs that has occasioned the recall of pet foods manufactured by Menu Foods and marketed by dozens of brand name vendors remains unknown:
Federal testing of some recalled pet foods and the wheat gluten used in their production turned up the chemical melamine. A greater sensitivity of cats to the chemical could explain why they’ve died in larger numbers than dogs after eating contaminated pet food, experts said yesterday. “I am concerned we have a situation where we have a sensitive species and it is the cat,” said Steven Hansen, a veterinary toxicologist and director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ poison control centre.
Testing by the FDA and Cornell University has found melamine in samples of recalled pet food, as well as in crystal form in the urine and kidney tissue of dead cats. They’ve also found the chemical, in apparently raw form in concentrations as high as 6.6 per cent, in wheat gluten used as an ingredient of the recalled cat and dog foods, said Stephen Sundlof, the FDA’s chief veterinarian.
“There was a sizable amount of melamine. You could see crystals in the wheat gluten,” Sundlof said. An FDA official allowed that it was not immediately clear whether melamine was the culprit.
Melamine has not been known to be toxic to mammals. On this basis the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which announced last week that it had identified aminopterin, a known toxin, in the recalled pet foods, is sticking to its guns:
“Today, FDA has identified another substance in implicated cat food, Melamine, which adds further information to what was already discovered and helps move this investigation forward. While we have no doubt that Melamine is present in the recalled pet food, there is not enough known data on the mammalian toxicity levels of Melamine to conclude it could cause illness and deaths in cats. With little existing data, many questions still remain as to the connection between the illnesses and what has caused them.
“Last Friday, we announced that the New York State Food Laboratory identified Aminopterin as a toxin present in cat food samples from Menu Foods. We stand confident in our finding of Aminopterin and know of at least one other laboratory that has confirmed its presence, the University of Guelph’s Animal Health Laboratory in Canada. Since, neither Aminopterin nor Melamine are compounds that should be found in pet food, it is important for full public disclosure.
“We believe the laboratories involved in this investigation should continue to maintain an open forum to definitively identify the one or more agents that are causing the deaths and illnesses of cats and dogs so that they do not enter the animal or human food chain in the future. We are committed to continuing to work closely with FDA and collaborating laboratories in sharing testing protocols and samples to ensure all possibilities are explored with the hope for a timely outcome to this situation.”
The NYSDAM has admirably come to the real issue: neither aminopterin nor melamine has any place in pet food or human food at all. Further, a contamination of 6.6% is not a trace contamination. It reflects either a massive error or a problem of a more serious nature.
According to the accounts I’ve read the FDA report says that melamine is used in Asia as a fertilizer (I have not seen this report myself). If this is, indeed, the case, is it possible that melamine is being used in such quantities that raw melamine is being incorporated into the wheat itself? Or is the source of this specific adulterant a failure in the processing, storage, shipping, etc. of the product?
Unless we know specifically how wheat gluten from China became adulterated with melamine (not to mention aminopterin) how confident should we be? If food manufacturers, brand name marketers, and the FDA aren’t testing products that come into this country from overseas, how do they know? As the president of one of the major companies involved in the recall put it “How were we to know that we should have been testing for melamine?”
The ancient dictum of commerce is caveat emptor—“Let the buyer beware!”. More than 100 years ago the U. S. Food and Drug Administration was created because it was recognized that the individual consumer simply had no way of knowing what was in the food or medicines he or she was buying and whether the foods were safe or the medicines effective.
The system we have in place today is based on trust. We trust the FDA to operate proactively to ensure the safety of food and medicines, we trust the companies—motivated by self-interest—to comply with regulations and deal with vendors that are trustworthy. That system of trust has enabled small, local food and medicine companies to grow into national and transnational giants.
We live in a very different world than that envisioned in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that established the FDA, the world’s oldest consumer protection agency. Ingredients and additives come from every country in the world, many with conditions very different from those that prevail here, and some with neither robust standards, inspection regimes, nor regulatory systems to ensure that standards of any kind are maintained. There is no international civil code enabling injured parties to seek redress of grievances. While politics may no longer stop at the water’s edge, U. S. consumer protection law does.
If the FDA and the companies that have thrived under our system of trust are to preserve that system under the conditions that prevail today, they must be more energetic and imaginative. Ignorance is not bliss.
Failing that consumers have the right to demand that we be given the information needed to make an informed purchasing decision. In this case that means specific sources of origin for every ingredient and every ingredient of an ingredient. That seems excessive to me. There must be a better way.
My previous posts on the pet food recall:
Major Developments in the Pet Food Recall
Today’s Update on the Pet Food Recall
Many More Pets Could Die
Menu Foods Recalls All Lots of Affected Foods
Latest Developments in the Pet Food Recall
More on the Pet Food Recall: It’s Rat Poison
Implications of Pet Food Recall Continue to Unfold