The pet food contamination scandal has been going on for so long that it's already passed into popular lore, becoming the butt of jokes on David Letterman and various YouTube videos. But the underlying problems are no joke. The issue involves products contaminated with wheat flour doped up on chemicals called melamine, and cyanuric acid.
The chemical ingredients were apparently added to pass the wheat flour off as more expensive, high protein vegetable products.
The tainted wheat has turned up in pet food, hog feed, chicken feed, and fish food, causing an avalanche of warnings, investigations, and some recalls. (Most recently, an American manufacturer of shrimp food issued a voluntary recall on some of its products, amid concern that it could contain melamine.) Pets who ate the contaminated food suffered kidney toxicity. Deaths of some 16 cats and dogs have been linked to the contamination, and many more are suspected.
The recalls also raise serious questions about the quality of meat and other products sold for human consumption, as some animals that ate the tainted feed made it into the human food supply. The FDA says any residues in human food would be very unlikely to pose a human health risk, though their assessment, just released May 25, is based on limited toxicity and exposure information.
The pet-food experience encompasses about every concern we've ever raised about the inadequacies of our government's approach to safeguarding our food supply: globalization, import surveillance, ingredient and product traceability, animal-feed quality, truth-in-labeling, and recall authority and disclosure. Here's a brief on some of them.
Neither the FDA nor the USDA has the authority to require tainted food be pulled from the market; they can only request that companies voluntarily issue a recall. The FDA and USDA estimate that up to three million chickens that ate contaminated feed ended up on U.S. dinner tables. Fifty-six thousand hogs that ate the feed were released for slaughter and sale. In spite of that, the USDA, which is responsible for meat recalls, didn't ask the companies to recall the tainted meat. The agency did stop animals that hadn't yet gone out for sale by temporarily withholding the USDA mark of inspection until they were evaluated, but then released them.
But even if the feds had asked companies to issue a recall, consumers might never have heard of it. In an effort to ensure industry cooperation, USDA doesn't share with the public the lists of stores involved with recalls.
Tracing a food item that's caused illness back to the processing facility is crucial to limiting the scope of a food-contamination outbreak. Packaged meat products like chicken and beef produced in the U.S. are labeled with a butchering plant code, but the tracking system doesn't extend to all products, or further down the chain to farms and feed sources.
In this case, FDA is requiring that all vegetable protein imports from China — including wheat gluten, rice protein concentrate, corn gluten, corn meal, soy protein and rice — be tested for melamine, cyanuric acid and related compounds. However, the protein product contamination is just the latest in a growing line of Chinese imports that threaten consumer health and safety. Lead in jewelry, counterfeit electronics products, and contaminated toothpaste are just a few of the problems that have come with the expansion of off-shore manufacturing. Much greater oversight is needed to identify the hidden costs that come with cheap imports. On average, FDA inspects food processing facilities at an estimated rate of once every ten years. It inspects only about one percent of the food entering the country from abroad and virtually never inspects a foreign food plant. The FDA assumes companies all follow GMP — good manufacturing practices — unless they have reason to believe otherwise.
Animal Feed Quality
Defrauding food producers by using cheaper ingredients as substitutes for pricier ones is just one of many ways that contaminants get into animal feed and enter the food supply. Feeding animals antibiotics, hormones, and animal proteins like feathers, remnants from the slaughterhouse, and even animal feces, are just a few of the ways that chemical contaminants and harmful bacteria can enter the food chain. Better safeguards to inspect and regulate food for creatures lower on the food chain are sorely needed to protect those of us further up that chain from deadly pathogens and harmful contaminants. We've been advocating against contaminated animal feed for years. To learn more, click here.