Securing the Food Supply

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
Dogfood Recall

6 comments… add one
  • The Orlando Sentinel, p. A12, 2 April 07


    In 1906, Upton Sinclair, in his provocative book, “The Jungle”, shocked our nation when he exposed contamination in our meat supply. Outraged Americans demonstrated in the streets, newspapers wrote scathing exposes, and meat-packing executives feared for their very lives. This debacle, coupled with the scandal in the patent-medicine racket, resulted in the USDA establishing meat-safety laws and inspections, and the creation of the FDA.

    Fast forward, now, 100 years later and people — and now our pets — are still getting sick or dying from tainted foods. Whether from Salmonella in our peanut butter, E.coli in our spinach, or Listeria in our chicken-breast strips, our system of food inspections has broken down. Hammer Big Agribusiness for poor quality control and dependence on questionable imports. Blame the careless rancher for allowing animal waste to runoff his property and contaminate adjacent crop fields. Fault the swinging door that revolves to and from Big Food to the USDA and FDA, both now little more than lobby groups for their regulated industries.

    We need to tell Big Food, Congress, and the Bush Administration that we are mad as heck and we aren’t going to take it any longer. Complacency could mean that the next child who dies is your own.

  • Thanks for the quote, Werewolfking. As you might have noticed from some of my prior posts I’ve been thinking about “The Jungle” a lot recently, too. With globalization it’s a completely new jungle out there.

  • L. Stookey Link

    A the co-caretaker of several cats and dogs, I have been following this story quite regularly. I could not have said it better than the article “Securing the Food Supply” and will not try. As a practicing chemist for many years before becoming a chemistry teacher, I call specific attention to the sentence, “Ingredients … come from every country in the world, … with neither robust standards … nor regulatory systems to ensure that standards of any kind are maintained.” (See the article for what I omitted).

    A couple of comments: First, it may be that CNN is relying on a report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) for its statement on melamine toxicity. At least that’s where I found that wording. The report addresses carcinogenicity. It does not deal substantially with non-carcinogenic toxicity such as kidney or other organ failure in the absence of tumors. I have no first-hand knowledge of the mammalian toxicity of melamine, but maybe we should take a look at a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for this substance for starters, and then other studies and data before we fall into error on either side of this issue.

    Second, it is standard procedure for industry to perform receiving inspection on incoming raw materials. Today, industrial laboratories have the ability to use techniques such as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to quickly and accurately measure concentrations of substances such as melamine and aminopterin at part-per-billion levels. For decades, these techniques have included computer analysis of the resulting data. We don’t even NEED to know what to look for, because the computer can look for all chemical compounds in its library, and there are very many of them. If the computer finds evidence in the raw data of a substance that does not match its library of chemical compounds, the evidence is flagged so that the supervising chemist can look into it further. With chemical analysis technology at the advanced level it is today, there is very little excuse for a company to say, “How were we to know that we should have been testing for melamine?” The only reason I can think of is the expense of maintaining this type of equipment in a laboratory. That argument flies in the face of the existence of a large number of independent testing laboratories that routinely perform these types of chemical analyses for a fee.

    On another note, melamine is 67% nitrogen by weight. If a company simply did a relatively inexpensive total nitrogen test on each shipment of the incoming wheat gluten, comtamination by over 6% melamine would show up as a 4% increase in nitrogen. This is accurately measureable. A 4% increase would stand out like a sore thumb. Any company that keeps control charts as part of its quality assurance program would see this as a big spike on an ottherwise nearly level line. If you think 4% is not much, bear in mind that commercial wheat gluten contains somewhere around 15% nitrogen, so an extra 4% would be an increase of about one part in four. Assume you weigh 160 pounds. One morning you climb on the scales and they read 200 pounds. This is the kind of wake-up call that 6% melamine in a smaple of wheat gluten would give by means of an industry-standard Kjeldahl nitrogen test.

    Hindsight may be 20-20, but I agree with the original article in that today we must be very much more careful than in the past regarding the quality of the goods we receive, regardless of the country of origin. “Caveat emptor” has been around a long time, and industrial purchasing, quality assurance and chemical testing have had plenty of time to get used to it.

    It’s a shame our animal pets (or companions, or whatever you choose to call them) have had to suffer as a result of this mistake. It may be true that those who are affected owners (or caretakers, or whatever you choose to call us) may not have any monetary recourse for veterinary bills and the like. The question remains, “What are we going to do about it so that something like this does not happen again?”

    Larry Stookey

  • sandra first Link

    None of us are banging down the doors of the Government shouting
    “This is broken, we demand you fix it!” Have we become a nation of spectators? …hoping that when the next axe falls, that it does not fall on us. I am ashamed that John Q. Public, en masse, has no guts and is so easily diverted by the latest titillating scandle.

    Tell me I am wrong. Please.

    Sandra First

  • sandra, I’ve written my Congressman and my Senators and I’ve encouraged others to do so. I’ve written pet food companies. I’ve written pet food retailers.

    I’ve gathered every piece of news I could find everywhere on this story and posted nearly every day since the story broke. I’ve used such resources as are at my command to promote the story and convince others that it was important.

    I’ve buttonholed my neighbors and family on this subject.

    I hope everybody does exactly the same things.

    But I’m too old and broken to man the barricades. I’ve got to leave that to those younger than I. I hope they care.

Leave a Comment