Thursday, April 5, 2007

Unraveling the Pet Food Mystery - TIME steps in

Good to see TIME covering the story.,8599,1607483,00.html

The fear and outrage surrounding the death of beloved Fidos and Fifis around the country from contaminated pet food isn't going away. Another recall was announced on Thursday, as officials added pet treats made by Sunshine Mills, a company based in Red Bay, Alabama, to the list of retracted products, because of the possibility it may have used contaminated wheat gluten. And Menu Foods Ltd. — which announced its first recall of 60 million dog and cat food products packaged under various brand names three weeks ago — extended the recall date to foods made between Nov. 8 and Mar. 6.

Since the scare began, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has confirmed 16 pet deaths, although anecdotal evidence suggests thousands more may have died because of the poisonous food. The FDA points to the inexplicable appearance of melamine, an industrial binding chemical used in plastic furniture, cookware, and in fertilizers overseas, as the likely cause. Lab tests found it in wheat gluten, a gravy thickener used in wet pet food. (Melamine is also used in human food such as baked goods and meat substitutes, but there is no indication the tainted wheat gluten has made it into human food.) "The association between melamine in the kidneys and urine of cats that died and melamine in the food they consumed is undeniable," says the FDA on its website. "Melamine is an ingredient that should not be in pet food at any level."

Still, the FDA says it cannot be sure melamine is the culprit. Here are the chief unanswered questions in the continuing pet-food mystery.

What Caused the Deaths?

Richard Goldstein, associate professor of medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, who is part of a Cornell team investigating the cause of death, says he would not normally expect melamine to kill a pet. Research on melamine's effects on animals is very limited: only a few dated studies have been done on dogs and just one on cats, which showed limited poisonous effects and no kidney damage. And melamine has a very low level of toxicity to rodents. "It looks like it [the melamine] is causing direct cell death in the kidneys and this is not something we would have expected to happen," says Goldstein. "I don't think it's pure melamine. Maybe there is some kind of reaction with the metabolism of melamine that would cause this."

A growing number of complaints about sick and dying animals who ate only dry food, which typically does not contain wheat gluten, is another reason some authorities question whether melamine is the real culprit.

Bruce Friedrich, Vice President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has urged the FDA to test for excessive levels of vitamin D; last year a manufacturing error led to too much of the vitamin in Royal Canin pet food, causing kidney failure and death in several animals. But Goldstein says excessive vitamin D is unlikely, since blood tests would show high calcium levels, which haven't been found. Says an FDA spokesman: "Our analysis of the premix indicates that vitamin levels were appropriate." Other theories floated to explain the bizarre deaths are aminopterin, or rat poison, which would cause the kind of kidney damage seen. An Albany lab found the substance in two pet food samples of canned foods, but the FDA has ruled these out because no other lab has been able to confirm the results.

Are Pet Food Standards Tough Enough?

The FDA, which is in charge of regulating pet food, claims the standards are as stringent as those for human food. But some authorities disagree and the FDA website admits they have limited enforcement resources. "The FDA is an agency under siege with no money and resources," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, who is writing a book on pet food. "They're not going to make pet food the priority when they have so much to do to make human food safe." That's disturbing news to animal lovers, since many furry pals are part of the family. The FDA requires that pet food must be pure, wholesome, sanitary and safe to eat — but the agency has no obligation to approve the food before it goes to market. "The FDA doesn't inspect the plants or the food, but leaves that up to AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials], which is a body that has no regulating power," says Friedrich of PETA. "So it really becomes self-policing."

Critics of the pet food industry point to two factors that may contribute to unsafe food: the centralization of the process for making food and the use of unsanitary material from rendering plants. The recall brought to light that the wheat gluten, which was eventually recalled, came from a single Chinese company but ended up in over 100 brands of pet food. ChemNutra Inc., based in Las Vegas, bought 873 tons of gluten from the Chinese company, farmed it out to three pet food makers and one distributor that services the industry. A highly centralized process may be cheap, but "at that size and scale if something goes wrong it goes wrong big time," says Nestle.

Rendering plants, which boil down dead animal carcasses from slaughterhouses into fats and proteins, sell cheap material that often ends up in pet food. The "meat" in your cat's kibbles could be any kind: there's no law against even using rendered material from cats and dogs in pet food. Plants can mix in anything from road kill to supermarket deli meats, and investigations by KMOV-TV in St. Louis and the Los Angeles Times have suggested that pets killed in animal shelters just might make it into the slop. The Pet Food Institute, whose members create most of the dog and cat food sold in the U.S., told the Times that pets are not allowed in their products. But the FDA has admitted to finding "very, very low levels" of sodium pentobarbital — the chemical used to euthanize animals — in some brands of dog food. Wayne Pacelle, President of the Humane Society of the U.S. said the allegations need more scrutiny. "The pet food industry is not the most transparent of industries and it has been really difficult for the public to obtain information," he says.

What Should You Feed Fido?

Besides staying away from recalled products, pet owners might want to consider using natural food from smaller companies. "I would suggest feeding pets organic instead of commercial dog food from big companies who are focused on filling food at the cheapest price," says Friedrich from PETA. Some pet lovers are bypassing store food altogether, serving up home cooked meals — everything from bone-shaped biscuits to homemade hamburgers. Sales of cookbooks for cats and dogs have increased dramatically, according Nielsen BookScan. But Goldstein of Cornell warns against cooking for your pet. "I would hate for people to stop using commercial pet food, because it's the healthiest diet in the long term for dogs and cats who need multiple vitamins at the proper ratios."

1 comment:

Caroline said...

Hope I'm leaving this post in the appropriate place. I am so far not affected by the recall, but that is a hollow victory because I know SO many people have been affected. I am a lifelong cat lover/owner and it is SICKENING to think about the suffering of the pets that have eaten tainted foods. I was turned on to the Pet Connection website from the Allan Handelman Show segment w/Dr. Marty Becker on a local FM talk radio channel in the Triad/Triangle area of NC.

My purpose for posting is to offer the food brands I have used over the last 2 & 1/2 years for my cats aged 16, 6, and 7 months(all mixed breeds). My oldest cat was diagnosed with a bone marrow cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, in Oct 2004. He was very anemic at that time and in respiratory distress along with symptoms of fatigue and loss of appetite within the week prior to his diagnosis. Since his health had always been good, no diabetes or kidney problems, I decided to treat him with a fairly simple and conservative chemo regimen. The oncology specialist at The Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Cary, NC recommended this regimen for a 3-4 week trial, saying that if his anemia corrected dramatically within this period his prognosis would be an average of 7 month survival w/treatment. Luckily Rocky's symptoms improved dramatically in the first 2 weeks, and I continued the therapy for 1 year. At 11 months I was ready to discontinue his monthly treatments because I felt that even though he had made it past 7 months, I didn't want to adversely affect his quality of life indefinitely by making him go to the vet every month and be sedated and get him upset (he has been difficult to deal with at the vet since age 9 years or so). Before I could suggest stopping treatment the vet said that since he had made it a year on treatment with good blood test results and general health we could stop and just do follow up blood work every month for 3 months, then have blood work every 3 or 4 months after that. He is still doing well.

When he was first diagnosed I researched diets for cats with cancer and other illnesses. The specialty vet found during Rocky's work up that had a mild case of pancreatitis which was likely responsible for episodes of vomiting Rocky had suffered from for years(my regular vet had never suggested this) which I had just associated with eating too quickly or maybe his litter box not being completely cleaned out. I chose Blue Cat Food which he liked somewhat but did not alleviate all of the vomiting problems he had. I also tried Wysong, Newmans Own, and Felidae which he liked, but I eventually settled on Wellness Salmon because of the lack of corn and wheat gluten and preservatives as well as his affinity for that brand. I feed primarily dry, though occasionally I give canned food as a treat. What is scary is that I used Science Diet for years, including savory cuts as a bimonthly-monthly treat. I had considered buying Nutro at one time when large bags of Wellness were backordered, but chose Felidae instead. I still have some Newmans Own cans of chicken and rice which I have fed in rotation with Wellness canned, but have never noticed any illness that seemed to be associated with Newmans Own. My other cats eat the same diet with no intestinal distress. When first eating both Newmans Own, and to a lesser extent Blue Cat Food, my cats had a couple of episodes of vomiting which the manufacturer warns may happen when switching to rice containing foods because the rice can cause bloating until the animals get used to that carbohydrate source.

I buy my food at a local cat/dog boutique now, but purchased through the internet for almost 2 years from several sites, the best of which I found to be NYC Pet Supply. There is veterinary school within 10 miles of the specialty hospital I take Rocky to, but the vet school is not as convenient to access or as practical about treatment issues as The Veterinary Specialty Hospital. The VSH is a 24 hour facility with ample parking and of the half dozen or so vet hospitals in this area is the only 24 hour hospital with a vet always on duty. Their number is (919)233-4911. If any of these foods or the hospital could benefit anyone, then this post has served the purpose I intended. If it helps, my analysis of food ingredients and brands is somewhat aided by experience in human healthcare and nutrition from being a pharmacist in retail, hospital, and oncology settings. My heart goes out to all who have sick animals. I have recently had one couple come to my pharmacy trying to find subcutaneous iv sets to replace the set they are using for giving IV fluid to their dog who has kidney problems that are suspected to be caused by tainted food. Two of the major retailers in the rural area where I work are Food Lion and Wal Mart. I commute 35 minutes to work in the opposite direction of the specialty hospitals in Cary/Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, and my travel time to those cities is 30+ minutes. The area I work in is a relatively poor farming community, and I'm sure many people there don't even know the food they may have purchased is or could make their animals sick, so I plan on posting information about the recalled foods as it is updated. At the Food lion next to my drug store I was making a quick shopping trip today and walked down the pet aisle and I saw NO signage anywhere with information about any pet food being recalled, which I found apalling!

Anyway, sorry to be so lengthy, and I wish all the humans and furry friends well. Hope this helps.