Today’s Update on the Pet Food Recall—5/30/2007

For once there’s no news today in the pet food recall (the Nutra Nuggets recall that some news outlets are carrying is a week old) so it might be a good opportunity to review the story to date. For good information on what foods have been recalled and more-or-less current news see here:

American Veterinary Medical Association page
Food & Drug Administration Pet Food Recall page
USDA Pet Food Recall page

To review the story to date, in late December of last year Menu Foods, North America’s largest manufacturer of wet pet foods which produces pet foods on a private label basis for most of the continent’s largest retailers, began receiving complaints on its customer support line. By mid-February they had determined that there was a problem with some of its “cuts and gravy”-style foods. A broad recall of the foods was announced in mid-March.

Several sources of the problem were suggested: aminopterin (a rat poison) and melamine (an industrial chemical used in the production of plastics and as a fertilizer in Asia) quickly became leading candidates. Significant amounts of melamine were detected in the recalled foods.

Over the period of the two months an increasing number of foods have been recalled both wet and dry, some having been found to have been contaminated with melamine, some for concerns about cross-contamination. It has been determined that at least two Chinese exporters exported a number of vegetable protein products including wheat gluten, rice gluten, corn gluten, and others that had been contaminated with melamine. It is possible that the contamination was a deliberate attempt to make low-quality additives appear to contain more protein than they actually did (a quick test for protein by testing for nitrogen will register melamine, which contains significant amounts of nitrogen, as protein). The FDA imposed an import ban on Chinese vegetable protein food ingredients.

When FDA inspectors went to China to investigate the exporters in question, there wasn’t much to inspect: the companies had pulled up stakes and disappeared. The Chinese government position has gone from denial to minimizing the significance to acknowledging the problem but characterizing it as the acts of a few unscrupulous individuals. A reformed inspection process has been announced.

It was found that, in addition to the contaminated pet foods, the melamine-laced products had made their way into hog, chicken, and farmed fish foods and from there into the human food supply. The FDA and the USDA have gone to some pains to attempt to reassure us that this presents no serious risk to people.

Researchers have demonstrated in vitro that melamine in combination with cyanuric acid (sometimes referred to as a “melamine-related substance”) produces crystals like those that have been found in the kidneys of affected animals.

Congress held some hearings; to the best of my knowledge there is no relevant pending legislation. There are several individual and class action lawsuit against Menu Foods and other manufacturers and suppliers and the importers claiming consequential damages. There’s also a false advertising class action lawsuit.

And that’s about where things stand right now. It’s nearly six months since the whole thing began to unfold. Between 2,000 and 17,000 dogs and cats have died. No one knows how many were injured. The FDA says that melamine presents a low risk. Chinese vegetable proteins are on an import ban.

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