One year after the Menu Foods debacle, people are still wondering – Is their pet’s food safe?
By Nellie Day
March 16, 2007, was a day in which many people lost not only their pets, but their faith in the pet-food industry. It was on this day that both pet-food companies and pet guardians were shocked to discover that a chemical called melamine, which is used as a fertilizer, was found in the food supply of Menu Pet Foods, a Canadian company that distributes its products to nearly 100 pet-food brands. Tainted pet food continued to line supermarket shelves a full three months after the first batch of melamine-laced cans was sold in America due to unclear regulations within the pet-food industry and a delay in recall efforts. For some, the results were devastating. For others, it was a wake-up call to just how unsafe our pet-food supply could become.
“It was such a helpless time for pet [people],” says Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “That was the day when you realized that what you were feeding your pet may not be safe, and it wasn’t.”
The Veterinary Information Network listed nearly 500 cases of kidney failure in dogs and cats that were likely due to the ingestion of melamine, which entered our pet-food supply through wheat gluten and rice proteins provided by two Chinese manufacturers who purposely mislabeled their products to avoid inspection by the Chinese government.
Although these two Chinese firms and one U.S. company (ChemNutra, an importer that allegedly knew it was receiving incorrectly labeled products) were charged in February with a total of 26 counts of bringing adulterated and mislabeled food into the U.S., this provides little comfort to the many people whose pets lost their lives because these companies wanted to cut a few corners and save a few bucks.
Even though none of the parties affected, indicted, or involved can change the past, they can all do their part to make sure the future of America’s pet-food industry is brighter and safer.
“One of the best ways the [pet-food] industry can make sure this doesn’t happen again is by listening to and following the recommendations of the National Pet Food Commission,” says Duane Ekedahl, president of the Pet Food Industry (PFI). “The [commission] recommends that the industry develop shared practices among companies with respect to the inspection of incoming ingredients … We need to work with our importers to be sure that we’re satisfied that our products are adequately safeguarded.”
One of the biggest problems pet-food brands face moving forward is that many of the essential ingredients for properly balanced pet food come from overseas. Because the presence of Asian-produced ingredients may now make many pet guardians wary, the industry and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have taken several steps to ensure that last year’s contamination won’t recur.
In late December, for example, a memorandum of agreement was signed by U.S. and Chinese officials that requires Chinese exporters to certify that their U.S.-bound products meet all FDA standards. The exact terms of those standards are still being worked out.
The FDA, as required by the FDA Alumni Association (FDAAA), is also developing pet-food ingredient and processing standards, creating early contamination warning systems, and updating pet-food labeling standards, which will require brands to provide nutritional and ingredient information on every can.
There is also the Human and Pet Food Safety Act of 2007 (H.R. 2108), a bill that, if implemented, would establish more processing and ingredient standards, require more inspections of food-processing plants, and fine companies that fail to report contaminations in a timely manner. It’s currently under the review of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Another proposal sitting on the congressional floor is the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) Law. It initially passed in 2002 and requires companies to state where their animal and agricultural products come from. However, concerns over cost and other logistics have prevented this law from going into effect.
But pet-food companies also have to do their part to earn back the trust of pet people. At least one is leading the way.
“I think our industry needs to put its money where its mouth is,” says Joey Herrick, president of Natural Balance Pet Foods, one of the 95 brands recalled last year. After learning of its contaminated product, Natural Balance spent $500,000 to build and maintain a testing lab. Every product the company cans is now tested, and those results are available to consumers.
“Those test results are on our website,” Herrick says. “All you have to do is look at the ‘best by’ date on your can of pet food and plug it into the testing page on our website. You’ll see the results for your exact food.”
While the government, pet-food industry, and individual companies are doing what they can to ensure the safety of pet food, many experts recommend that people also take an active role in making sure their furry friends are safe. This includes keeping up on current food-related regulations, watching for unusual symptoms in your pet (such as loss of appetite, lack of energy, and vomiting), and contacting your pet-food brand with questions or concerns.
“You want to be extremely proactive,” Shain says. “Call your pet-food companies. Make sure you have all the information. If they’re not willing to answer your questions, then you should see that as a huge red flag.”
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