Food Contamination

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

Once-feral office cat 'Agent 99'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:

Dog food found in cat food bag

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:

Walmart 'Special Kitty' cat food

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?

Rotten Walmart 'Special Kitty' cat food
Label shows well within the 'Best By' date
Maybe it's an old bag? Nope: the "Best By" imprint clearly shows it's supposed to be good through 07 2011 -- next summer.
Yeah: my cats wouldn't go anywhere near it either! It's completely infested with mold in a lot of interesting colors. Considering it's well within its "best by" date, clearly something terrible has happened between the factory and my office.

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.

Bigger Implications

Label: 'Trusted Brand' has 'the nutrition you want' and 'the flavor cats crave'?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.


Randy Cassingham is the publisher of This is True, the curator of the popular joke site, Jumbo Joke, and is the founder of Cranky Customer.

« "The World's Most Advanced E-Book Reader" | Home | No One Else Can Say That! »


Randy, you usually do a great job finding the facts, but this time you missed something. Dairy cows are emphatically NOT fed low-dose antibiotics. The only antibiotics dairy cows are given are as needed for sickness or infection, and then the milk is dumped down the drain until the withholding period is over. Milk is one of the most tested products in the country, and antibiotic residue in milk is something no farmer would mess with. When the milk truck driver goes to the farm, he pulls a milk sample which is carefully preserved and labeled. Then when the truck gets to the dairy (it could contain milk from several farms) a sample is pulled and checked for antibiotics. NO antibiotic residue is allowed. If any antibiotics are found, the entire tanker is dumped and the individual farm samples are tested. This will identify the farm where the residue came from. Then that farmer is on the hook for ALL of the milk -- they won't just not get paid for their milk, but they have to pay the other farmers for their milk, too. This is thousands upon thousands of dollars. Most farmers keep antibiotic test kits on the farm and test individual cows to make sure they're free of antibiotics once the therapeutic course is over and before her milk is put "into the tank" again. If a farmer has even a suspicion that someone messed up, they'll test the tank before the milk truck shows up and will dump the tank themselves rather than being on the hook for other farmers' milk, too. The US milk supply is exceptionally safe. I can give you an earful on the "hormones" (BST) given cows too, if you'd like.


Regarding antibiotics in milk cows, while I freely admit I had assumed that "constant low-dose antibiotics" was common in all herds, not just meat stock, Wikipedia notes:

In dairy herds, grazed cattle typically have a reduced need for antibiotics relative to grain-fed cattle, simply because the grazed herds are less productive.[22] A high-energy feedlot diet greatly increases milk output, measured in pounds or kilograms of milk per head per day, but it also increases animal physiological stress,[22] which in turn causes a higher incidence of mastitis and other infectious disease, more frequently requiring antibiotic therapy (reference needed). perhaps the difference needs to be made more clear to the public at large. As for growth hormones, "The United States is the only developed nation to permit humans to drink milk from cows given artificial growth hormone.[2] Posilac [artificial bovine growth hormone developed by Monsanto] was banned from use in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and all European Union countries (currently numbering 27), by 2000 or earlier." (source). That we allow agribusiness to dictate policy here is not a comfort. -rc

I would encourage all pet owners to check out the dry food at your local pet store. Smaller ones tend to have better prices than the big chains like Petco and PetSmart, but not always.

The only draw back is that you may have to buy a 17-20 pound bag to get the best savings -- but not always. Some of the brands to look at are Premium Edge, Chicken Soup for the Pet Lovers Soul, etc. They are surprisingly affordable. Ask clerks for advice... most know what they're talking about.

For instance, if I buy an 18 pound bag of Premium Edge (a very decent "middle of the road" quality food), it will cost me about $21.00.

When I feed a food with less fillers, my cats eat less, poop less, and the smell isn't as hideous.

There are a number of higher quality brands of both dog and cat food that are the same price or cheaper than the Purina, Meow-Mix cr*p...and much more nutritious.

No matter what brand you're buying, if the first ingredient is CORN -- walk away. Former "top quality" foods like Iams and Science Diet were bought out by big corporations and are NOT using the formula they became famous for. They are a notch above Special Kitty...and you're paying a fortune.

A little education about the type of food you feed makes for a healthier pet and a happier wallet.

Why feed your pets "pet food" anyway? Dogs and cats aren't designed to eat corn, wheat, rice, and other hi-carb fillers which is what most of dry pet food is made with. Dogs have lived with humans for 10,000 years eating scraps. Continue the tradition and feed them eggs, meat (lately ground beef is cheaper than dog food), oil, fruit, cheese, bonemeal (so they don't have to crunch up the bones). Your pet probably won't turn his nose up at it either.

Post a comment

Read this before posting a comment! Comments are of course the opinion of the poster. All comments must be approved by the site owner before they appear. Only interesting, pertinent comments that have to do with the entry will be approved, and all comments may be edited for brevity, flow, or grammar. Read the existing comments before posting your own to ensure you're not saying something that's already been covered. See this page for more info.

Last, don't waste your time (or ours) commenting on the ads. We know that the context-sensitive ads are often shilling for the very companies we're ranting at, so we don't consider it "ironic"; it's simply how the ad systems work, and "Hey! Look at that!" comments aren't interesting, they're boring. Thanks.