By Elizabeth Weise and Julie Schmit
The company that recalled 60 million containers of dog and cat food said Wednesday that its testing is continuing, but the source of the contamination that has killed at least 16 animals and sickened possibly hundreds more is still a mystery.
It also has put a spotlight on the world of pet food processing and is raising a range of questions about whether companies and the government do enough testing to ensure the safety of products meant for pets at a time when animals hold a special place in many Americans' households.
Whatever tainted Menu's "cuts and gravy"-style pet food "remains a puzzle," spokesman Sam Bornstein says. Federal regulators have said one possibility could be contaminated wheat gluten, but other ingredients are being checked. The food linked to pet deaths so far is believed to have been produced at Menu's plant in Kansas. The recall includes products made at Menu's New Jersey plant, too, because it received some of the same wheat gluten.
This week, pet owners have gone to veterinarians' offices, online chat rooms and blogs to express anxiety over what to feed their animals and the safety of pet food - and even to wonder whether the contamination could have implications for the human food supply system.
Karen Goodhart of Port Wentworth, Ga., says she lost one of her cats to kidney failure and is caring for another that also lost some kidney function after eating tainted food. She's now buying food from her veterinarian and may never use commercial food again. "I'm scared to death of it," she says.
As the investigation continues, Goodhart and other pet owners are focusing on several key questions:
Q: Does this episode involving pet food offer any lessons for human food production?
A: Not specifically. Recent outbreaks of food-borne illness in fresh spinach and lettuce had to do with a dangerous E. coli bacteria. That's also true for many meat recalls. It's unclear what happened in the Menu Food case, but the pet food was processed, so microbial contamination is less likely. Other problems can lead to tainted food, including missteps in processing or sourcing of raw ingredients, and companies need to keep up their guard on all facets of production, says Greg Aldrich, a nutritionist with Pet Food and Ingredient Technology of Topeka.
Q: Who's responsible for ensuring the safety of pet food?
A: The FDA and state feed program officials regulate the industry, but it's largely self-policing. That's also true of much of the human food industry, but the slaughter and processing of meat for human consumption is more heavily regulated. Pet food companies set their own standards for testing raw ingredients and finished products, Aldrich says.
Wellness, a pet food from Old Mother Hubbard in Chelmsford, Mass., has suppliers test every load of raw material, says Greg Kean, director of product development and quality assurance for the brand.
The same is true for Nestle; Purina, says Terry Block, president for Nestle; Purina PetCare's North American division. "We check every load, every one of those rail cars," for contaminants and to make sure the goods meet nutritional and other requirements. Block says Nestle;'s suppliers are certified and audited, and the manufacturing process is monitored.
Nestle; Purina recalled three Mighty Dog products because they were made by Menu, even though no problems had been reported.
Additional oversight comes at the state level, where regulation is done by feed program administrators. "Every state I know of has a program in place to routinely sample products," says Dave Syverson, chairman of the pet food committee of the Association of American Feed Control Officials.
Q: So the FDA doesn't have inspectors in pet food plants?
A: Not always. In the case of Menu Foods, FDA inspectors had never set foot inside the Kansas plant until this incident. "Their priority is human food and human safety," Aldrich says.
Q: What keeps pet foods safe?
A: Processing plants have to comply with the FDA's rules for good manufacturing practices, as do human food plants.
If pet food is canned, the processors also have to comply with FDA regulations for canned products. By definition, canning means sealing food in an airtight container and then heating it to more than 240 degrees to kill microorganisms.
Companies that sell pet foods have strong incentives to keep them safe: Recalls damage reputations and finances.
Diamond Pet Foods of Meta, Mo., in 2005 suffered the last major pet food recall when corn used in some of its pet food was contaminated with aflatoxin, a mycotoxin that damages the liver, and led to the deaths of at least 76 dogs.
Vice president of operations Mark Brinkmann says Diamond, which is not involved in the current recall, still doesn't know how the contaminated corn got through its safety inspection. The recall resulted in Diamond stepping up safety checks. The privately held company won't say how much the 2005 recall cost. Brinkmann says Diamond paid veterinary bills of customers whose animals fell ill.
Q: So pet food might not be as safe as human food?
A: Actually, it probably is. Dogs and cats naturally eat raw foods, and their systems are better able to withstand potential contaminants that might harm humans. And dog and cat foods may be safer than many foods consumed by humans because most dog and cat foods are canned or cooked, which kills bacteria. That's not true for leafy greens and other vegetables or fruits often consumed raw by humans. Nor is it the case for raw pet foods, which have been increasing in popularity.
Commercial pet food is fed to more than 90% of the pets in the USA with few reported problems, says Quinton Rogers, an emeritus professor of animal nutrition at the University of California-Davis.
Only a tiny portion of pet food is officially tested, Syverson says. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of tons of product. You can't sample everything." The FDA mainly works on questions of labeling and ingredients, he says.
Q: Speaking of ingredients, is what you see on the labels of pet foods what you get?
A: Labels showing luscious grilled chicken and cutlets in gravy don't quite match up to what's inside, which is more likely to include wheat gluten, animal byproducts and soy meal, says Ann Martin, author of Food Pets Die For.
Byproducts are unrendered proteins that can include heads, feet, viscera and other animal parts, FDA pet food specialist William Burkholder says.
Q: How can food become contaminated?
A: In pet food processing, grains such as corn, wheat and rye can become infected with fungus in cool and wet weather. Some fungi produce toxins causing illness and liver and kidney failure in animals.
Q: Other than the Diamond case, has this occurred before?
A: In 1999, contamination with a different fungal toxin killed 25 dogs. Producer Doane Pet Care of Brentwood, Tenn., which made food for companies including Wal-Mart, recalled its dry dog food. In 1995, Nature's Recipe dog food was recalled after a fungus that produced vomitoxin sickened dogs. The company lost $20 million.
Q: What should pet owners feed their animals? Should people make their own pet food?
A: If you have a recalled product, don't feed it to your pets. Call your vet if your pets show signs of kidney problems (lethargy, frequent urination, copious drinking). Beyond that, there's no reason to believe that other commercial pet foods are dangerous.
Owners shouldn't try to make pet food unless they're very careful about nutrition, says Sean Delany, a consultant with Davis Veterinary Medical Consulting in Davis, Calif., and a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"If people make homemade food, they potentially could do far more harm by providing a deficient diet" for their pet, Delany says.
Q: If Menu made all these foods for all of these companies, are they all the same? Does it pay to buy higher-priced food?
A: It may. Even though Menu made foods for a large number of companies, they aren't all the same. Different companies have different recipes.
Q: Blogs and discussions this week are full of chatter by people who have lost pets or had pets fall ill and who want to file lawsuits against pet food companies. Can they?
A: They can, but it's a difficult legal case to make.
"A few states, Washington in particular, do allow emotional distress damages to a pet owner if the pet was 'maliciously harmed.' Most states still view pets as property," so potential damages are limited, says Bill Marler of Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm. He says pet owners rarely can win the type of pain-and-suffering damages possible in cases involving human victims.
That hasn't stopped people from trying. On Tuesday, Chicago law firm Blim and Edelson filed a class-action suit in federal court against Menu Foods. The suit says the company acted negligently by failing to prevent the tainted food from reaching the public and was too slow to issue the recall, resulting in more pets being harmed.
"We believe those types of damages will be applicable," says Jay Edelson, a lawyer with the firm.
"I know a lot of people say, 'It's just a dog, just a cat.' " says Goodhart, who is not involved in the Chicago lawsuit. "But these kids are my family. I don't rank them up there with my kids, but they're pretty close, and they deserve higher standards for their food."