Veterinarians Seeking Solutions for Dog and Cat Food Recalls
No one knows how many cats and dogs have fallen ill after eating the pet food subject to a massive recall. Many veterinarians are wondering whether this sort of problem is preventable as they struggle to respond to the situation.
Menu Foods Inc., a Canadian manufacturer of wet pet food, recently recalled more than 60 million containers of cuts and gravy-style food from two U.S. facilities because of concerns about the effect of the products on the renal health of pets. The recall represents about 1 percent of pet food in the United States, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA, which regulates pet food and many ingredients in pet food, stated that the recall resulted from consumer complaints and the deaths of animals in routine palatability studies. A suspect agent at press time in late March was melamine, which had apparently contaminated the wheat gluten that went into food that was recalled.
As the investigation continues, practitioners have been busy calming clients and stabilizing patients. The veterinary community is sharing information and attempting to develop a treatment protocol.
Practitioners also are learning much more about dog and cat food, from details of commercial manufacturing to issues with home preparation.
Tracing the Pet Food Contamination
The veterinary community has been discussing suspect agents, too.
Melamine is used as a fertilizer in Asia and in production of plastics worldwide. An unnamed company first found the melamine in food from the recall. The FDA confirmed the finding and identified melamine in wheat gluten that went into the food.
The Cornell University Animal Health Diagnostic Center also identified melamine in food, urine from cats that ate the food, and the kidney of one cat in the palatability studies. Dr. Donald Smith, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, said the relationship between the melamine and the clinical signs in animals is presumptive. Little literature is available about effects of melamine on cats and dogs.
From the beginning, the FDA has looked for a contaminant in the wheat gluten because Menu Foods recently changed suppliers of that ingredient. The agency was tracing shipments from the same supply of wheat gluten, which originated in China.
The FDA determined that another manufacturer of pet food, both wet and dry, received some of the wheat gluten. At press time, the agency was working with the manufacturer to determine whether the ingredient went into any food. The FDA also has begun reviewing and sampling all incoming shipments of wheat gluten from China.
An earlier suspect toxin was aminopterin, an antagonist of folic acid.
The New York State Food Laboratory reported that it found aminopterin in food from the palatability studies. Director Daniel Rice said aminopterin was a cancer drug about 50 years ago in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency later banned use of the toxin as a rodenticide in this country.
At press time, no laboratory had announced an independent confirmation of the aminopterin finding. Tests continued for other contaminants and ingredients.
Preventing the Pet Food Contamination Problem
Even with the changeable nature of the situation, questions have arisen about whether more inspections could have found the contamination and whether the recall could have gone any better.
The timing and scope of the recall are one subject of analysis.
Menu Foods manufactured the products in the recall between Dec. 3 and March 6. According to the FDA, the company received the first consumer complaint Feb. 20. Shortly afterward, the company initiated tests of the products in question by internal and external specialists, but results of the tests did not reveal evidence of concern.
The company’s routine palatability studies began Feb. 27, according to the FDA, and the first death among those animals was March 2. Menu Foods contacted the FDA March 15 and issued the recall March 16.
The problem appeared to be with cuts and gravy-style food from a Kansas plant, according to the FDA, but Menu Foods extended the recall to the same style of food from a New Jersey plant that was using wheat gluten from the same new supplier. Menu Foods has not confirmed that wheat gluten is the suspect ingredient, but the company stated that production has continued at the plants with another source of the ingredient in question.
Paul K. Henderson, Menu Foods president and chief executive officer, said the company continues to investigate the contamination. The company also is reviewing the manufacturing process and looking for more safeguards.
Henderson said he and his employees are “heart-stricken” by pet owners’ losses.”A pet is an important part of any family,” Henderson said. “We understand that.”
The scope of FDA food inspections was a subject of analysis before this recall. Recent recalls of human food include peanut butter and spinach. Diamond Pet Foods issued a recall in late 2005 because of aflatoxin contamination.
Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, said regulation of human and animal food doesn’t differ substantially. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires that foods be pure and wholesome and that they contain no harmful or deleterious substances-though the act does not specify how manufacturers should ensure safety. The FDA identifies foods with higher risks for more inspections, Dr. Sundlof said, and pet foods are usually very safe.
The agency has limited resources for inspecting animal food and drugs, so it focuses inspections on manufacturers of drugs and of feed for food-producing animals. The FDA typically inspects manufacturers of pet foods if there is a particular reason, such as a complaint. States also maintain programs for regulating and inspecting manufacturers of pet food. The FDA confirmed that it had never inspected Menu Foods’ Kansas plant before the recent recall.
Federal law does not mandate the frequency of inspections or premarket approval of foods under FDA jurisdiction, unlike the meat and egg products under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture. The FDA regulates much more of the food supply with much less money than the USDA, according to the Government Accountability Office.