Update on the Pet Food Recall

Over at my home base, The Glittering Eye, I’ve been posting on the pet food recall obsessively, almost to the exclusion of everything else. This must have puzzled many people. There are a number of reasons for my interest in this story.

First, I’m a committed dog owner, my dogs are an important part of my life, and anything that threatens them, threatens me. But there are larger reasons, too.

If you’re not aware of the story, last month Menu Foods, a major private label manufacturer of dog and cat foods, announced a recall of their “cuts and gravy”-style foods affecting almost 100 different varieties and including some of the best known brands in the country. The recall has expanded to cover some varieties of dog biscuits and a couple of varieties of dry pet food. The toxin remains unknown but it has been determined that wheat gluten imported from China used in the manufacture was contaminated with melamine, a chemical used in dinnerware, countertops, and fertilizer (in Asia).

There have been some important new developments.

Rice gluten concentrate, also bought from a Chinese exporter has also been found to have been contaminated with melamine. The melamine may have entered the human food supply by being fed to pigs in the form of animal feed. And just yesterday a South African company announced that they had detected melamine contamination in corn gluten which they’d imported from China. The FDA has suggested that this contamination may be a deliberate move to boost the apparent protein content of the product.

Consequently, this story not only concerns me through my dogs but through my interest in a number of other issues: China, globalization, corporate behavior, issues of security and preparedness, and the role and performance of government. Here’s how I end my most recent post on the subject:

We’re left with a number of unanswered questions:

  1. How did the wheat gluten, rice gluten concentrate, and corn gluten become contaminated with melamine? Melamine shouldn’t be present in these products in any quantity.
  2. Is melamine toxic to dogs and cats? Melamine has not been considered a toxin.
  3. If melamine isn’t toxic, what is causing the kidney failure and deaths in pets?
  4. Is melamine toxic to humans? If so, we’ve got an enormously larger problem before us. Melamine is used in dinnerware, cooking implements, and kitchen countertops both in private homes and commercially.
  5. Has melamine entered the human food supply? The FDA says “they have no reason to believe…”, etc., but that’s weaselly bureaucratese. I continue to see no way they can make that determination without knowing the scope of the problem (and, since additional products are being recalled nearly daily, it’s obvious they can’t identify the scope of the problem at this time), how the melamine got into the wheat gluten, rice gluten concentrate, and corn gluten, and where else the contamined products were sold.

Write your congressman. This is a serious problem.

FILED UNDER: Health, , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. Anon says:

    Even if melamine is toxic to humans when consumed in quantity, it could still be safe at the levels that one might expect to absorb through countertops, etc. That stuff is melamine resin, and is made from melamine and formaldehyde. For example, note that formaldehyde is definitely toxic, but still safe when it is polymerized in the resin.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    You’re absolutely right, Anon. As I see it the problem is that the studies that established that melamine was non-toxic were performed on dogs. If the studies are to be believed, dogs were fed enormous quantities of melamine in their food over the period of a year without much effect. Consequently, tt has not been thought to be toxic in any quantities whatever. If it is, indeed, toxic, at what quantities is it toxic? These appear to be unknowns at this point.

  3. legion says:

    And it’s not just quantities, but interactions. Do we have a reliable source on how long melamine has been used? If it’s been very long at all, then the most likely problem is a toxic by-product when combined with some more recent food additive or flavoring agent. My next guess would be some abnormal condition that occurred to some large chunk of a production run… maybe sitting too long on a dock somewhere between here & China ‘cooked’ it in an unexpected way?

  4. Anon says:

    By the way, I have always been hesitant to buy foodstuffs made in China, even before this incident. Given a choice, I will buy the same thing made in US, Japan, Taiwan, or South Korea. (I’m ethnically Chinese, so buy these kinds of things probably more often than most Americans.)

    What I wonder about is how much food safety we really have for imported, human food products? How much testing does the FDA really do?

  5. Phil Smith says:

    I dunno, I’ve run across the word “melamine” previously when doing various home improvement projects. A quick run at wikipedia makes me think that there’s a possible conflation at work here between “melamine” and “melamine resin”. Melamine resin is what Formica and some plastic dinnerware is made out of. Melamine is a glue used to make moisture-resistant particle board.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Melamine resin is made by combining melamine (the chemical) and formaldehyde.

  7. jeff b says:

    Perhaps it is time to impose tariffs on imports from nations which do not meet our safety and environmental standards? The tariffs would offset the costs to US producers to meet those same regulations, making domestic production more competitive with imports while simultaneously enforcing our health and safety regulations.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s a “chicken or the egg” situation, jeff b. You don’t know what doesn’t meet safety standards without incurring the costs. That doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with you, BTW.

    My own view is that I really don’t think that any of the U. S. or Canadian companies or the respective governments are doing due diligence. How many execs of these companies have actually visited the facilities of the Chinese companies with which they’re doing business? My guess is none. They don’t really know if they’re dealing with middle men, manufacturers, or what.

  9. anjin-san says:

    This story sheds some light on the fact that much of the pet food sold in this country is garbage. A lot of supermarket grade cat food has ash in it, which is a health risk for cats. Would you feed your family ash? Why is it there? It is a filler, it makes pet food more profitable. And you don’t even want to know about rendered animal by-products that go into a lot of pet food.

    I think most pet owners love their pets and want them to be healthy. Check out Pet Promise Cat & Dog foods, http://www.petpromiseinc.com/. (I have no ties to this company BTW).

    We were giving our cats a high quality pet store food, and after doing some comparisons, concluded Pet Promise is much better then even the high quality stuff we had been buying.

  10. I once owned a terrier that developed a serious skin disorder. Our vet suggested we stop feeding him the cheap store brand, which I won’t identify more precisely because I haven’t the time to defend myself from a libel suit. We switched to Iambs and, sure enough, the skin condition promptly cleared up.

    Yes, I know: anecdotal data, no controls, and correlation does not equal causation. Take it for whatever you think it’s worth.

    My weiner dogs still get Iambs. The cats seem to do okay on Meow Mix even though it’s moderately cheap. Though they do supplement their diets with selected house plants and small helpless creatures.

    I’m guessing the melamine is a red herring, which has been there for a long time and was only found now because people started looking. My wild guess is that some seed grain treated with some genuinely awful fungicide found its way into the pet food.

  11. BrianOfAtlanta says:

    Kent, what you describe is the standard thing veterinarians recommend when someone brings in a pet with a rash or other allergic reaction. If the owner doesn’t know of any noxious chemical which the pet has come into contact with, the next suspect is always an allergic reaction to something in the food. Happens all the time in the vet clinic where my daughter works, and 90% of the time it is, indeed, the food.

  12. billof wichita says:

    The melamine should not really be a problem as it is mostly non toxic in its plastic dust type form. We have all eaten off it or been around formica counter top. Even the dust should not be an issue. Maybe if the raw chemical parts got in..??

    But the overriding issue I was following up on is WHY are we importing Wheat Gluten at all. I live in Kansas where we grow the most wheat in the US. And the Menu Foods company is out of Canada I think. So they also have a large amount of wheat farms.

    I called the US AG dept and was told an astounding facts. That we get most of our gluten from overseas, Brazil, China, etc. and we only have 4 plants in the US that make it.

    I used to work in a flour mill during high school, thay made starch and gluten and flour. But I called them and they said they quit making gluten years ago….no money maker. Which seems odd as the stuff is about 80% pure protein and is put in all kinds of foods. Even in the 70’s it was selling for about a dollar per pound. Pretty expensive stuff compared to flour.

    So the overriding issue is still why can we send this stuff clear round the world and not be able to make it here and still make money…ridiculous

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    bill, the wheat varieties we grow here are mostly fairly low-gluten ones. And, then, of course, there’s the processing (essentially a washing process) that separates the gluten from the starch. We don’t do much of that here and wheat gluten (seitan) is a common part of Chinese cuisine (although as China becomes wealthier it’s falling out of fashion in favor of meat).

    When the finger was first pointed at wheat gluten, I checked the prices for European and Chinese gluten. There’s about a 20% difference.

  14. […] 4/21/2007 The Pet Food RecallPosted by: MichaelIt’s the responsibility of “China, globalization, corporate behavior, issues of security and preparedness, and the role and performance of government” […]

  15. Knut Smith says:

    China, globalization, corporate behavior, issues of security and preparedness, and the role and performance of government — indeed. Thank you Dave for your voice. These are perhaps some of our most pressing national concerns.

    Respectfully, melamine is not really the issue. We have actually paid the FDA to protect us from this kind of abuse. This is the very tip of a huge problem.

    Why are we importing food staples from one of the world’s most toxic environments? This undermines the efficacy of FDA, USDA to protect the population. This is not only a health issue; it is a strategic security problem for the nation.

    In reply to Anon above who asked, “How much testing does the FDA really do? 1.3%. Article: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-04-16-imported-food_N.htm.

    And to call further attention to a well documented food safety problem in China, this example from a USDA.gov/sponsored site: http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/November06/Features/FoodSafety.htm

    Site Quote: Many of China’s food safety problems can be traced back to the farm level. Farmers rely on heavy use of chemicals to coax production out of intensively cultivated soils and deal with pest pressures, a practice that contributes to food safety problems. China has one of the world’s highest rates of chemical fertilizer use per hectare, and Chinese farmers use many highly toxic pesticides, including some that are banned in the United States. Farm chemicals are sometimes mislabeled.

    Mislabeling is the operative word here. These are common practices that seek to bypass monitoring (what little there is). Can there be trust in dealing with a system that uses deception on this scale? A system that says, “We want to make our rice and wheat product appear to have a higher N content, which infers protein, so we’ll just add some N to fool the labs. All else aside, do you really want to eat “organic” vegetables washed and frozen in water from a river that takes 40% of China’s waste, 80% of which is untreated. This is a catastrophe.