by Randy Cassingham
When people talk about food safety, usually the topic is food for humans. But in the Spring of 2007, the topic expanded with a huge recall of pet foods -- for dogs and cats -- after the deaths of hundreds of pets from kidney failure were linked to their food, which was contaminated by melamine. The contamination was found in pet foods in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and South Africa.
Melamine is a base used in plastic making. How in the world did that end up in pet food? In chemical analysis, melamine shows up as if it was protein, so an illicit manufacturer could add some to food so that analysis shows there is more protein than is actually present, justifying a higher price than its inherent quality might bring. (You can read the chemistry behind why melamine shows up as protein in ScienceBase.)
Right: it's a fraud, done on purpose, with no regard to the health of its victims. The fraud was traced back to a single Chinese factory that produced wheat gluten, which was then used as a gravy thickening agent by pet food manufacturers who didn't know about the adulteration. Brands affected included some of the world's leading food manufacturers, including Menu Foods of Ontario, Canada, which makes more than 50 brands of dog food and more than 40 brands of cat food; Nestle's Purina, best known for Alpo dog food; Del Monte, which makes a number of pet treats; Hill's Pet Nutrition, Natural Balance Pet Foods, even Costco's Kirkland brand. And many more. And it wasn't the first time: thousands of dogs and cats in Asia suffered kidney failure in 2004, and a 2007 analysis of their tissues showed the same damage to their kidneys. Store shelves were stripped bare by the resulting product recalls. (Details)
Now, you might blow off the idea of "callous disregard for pet health," but the fraud extended to watered-down milk, which was then pumped back up to the needed "protein" levels and used in infant formulas. Several thousand human babies in China ended up the same way, suffering kidney failure. By late 2008, even China admitted 300,000 children were affected. Many died. (Source)
Naturally, a lot of lawsuits are pending over the various contamination cases.
Fast Forward to the Present
My wife and I live in a rural area, where mice are a problem. We have cats, but luckily there seemed to be no such contamination in the brands we happen to use, probably because we tend to use dry food, which doesn't have the "gravy" of many wet food brands.
I've been having a mouse problem in my office for over a year, so when a pair of feral cats had kittens under a storage shed, I managed to capture one of them. I had her spayed and let her live in the office. Sure enough, she (and another cat I got as a companion) have caught a bunch of mice. Sweet!
I've been feeding them "Special Kitty" brand cat food -- a Walmart brand. It's not made in China, but then, neither were most of the foods covered in the 2007 recalls: the U.S. and Canadian manufacturers, however, used ingredients -- including wheat gluten -- that was made in China. The "Special Kitty" brand has been fine ...until lately. The last bag I bought was contaminated. No, not with melamine, but with dog food! There was about a bowl-full of these nuggets mixed in with the cat food:
Not really a big deal: dog food would certainly not hurt a cat, but my cats are fairly small and they couldn't eat these. I sighed, but it wasn't worth a trip to town to return the bag. But it seems to have been a harbinger of things to come. On September 22, I bought another bag:
You might notice something odd as you look at the open part of the bag. It sure caught my eye. Shall we take a closer look?
|Maybe it's an old bag? Nope: the "Best By" imprint clearly shows it's supposed to be good through 07 2011 -- next summer.|
I've since read various reviews online that says the Special Kitty brand rates among the lowest in quality. While a high price certainly doesn't guarantee high quality, it seems reasonable to think that a rock-bottom price is pretty indicative of low quality -- and Special Kitty is indeed cheap, cheap cat food. I'll never buy it again. Just something to think about next time you go to Walmart -- or anywhere else -- to buy pet food.
Americans love their pets. A study by Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell finds that Americans are more likely to consider pets "family" than gay partners. Sick? Maybe, but that's what the study says. So manufacturers and retailers put assurances like "TRUSTED BRAND" on the label, assuring the bag contains "the nutrition you want". According to what authority? Why, none whatever: it's marketing, not science or expert opinion.
But it goes deeper than that: this isn't just about pet food. If a manufacturer is willing not just to poison animals with fake "protein" but also babies, what does that say about them and their profit motive? And what does it say about our entire food supply? Activists are up in arms about "genetically modified" foods, but milk is a lot more basic. And it's not just melamine pumped in by one Chinese factory: think about the milk you buy that's from cows given constant low-dose antibiotics and growth hormones, and the real (not theoretical) havoc that's having on humans.
It's time for us to have a serious discussion about food safety -- not just in the United States, but in the world. Low-quality pet food is merely a minor symptom of a big disease. We need to put our foot down and demand better quality. Our lives, not just our pets, depend on it.