It's been nearly a week since Canadian pet-food manufacturer Menu Foods Inc. recalled some 60 million cans and pouches of wet food linked to the deaths of at least 15 cats and one dog, yet authorities still can't explain exactly what went wrong. Some critics and animal lovers are honing in on what they see as lax regulation of the $15 billion pet-food industry in the United States.
"There's almost a void there," says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association. "There is no real pet-food department of any federal agency."
Technically, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring that pet foods, like human foods, are safe to eat, truthfully labeled and produced under sanitary conditions. But on Tuesday, FDA officials admitted that the regulation of pet food takes a back seat to its regulatory obligations of other food and drug sectors, and that inspections of pet-food processing plants are done only on a for-cause basis.
"There are limited resources," said David Elder, director of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance in the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine in Rockville, Md. Elder added that inspections of companion animals' food products are "based on risk." Which means that the processing plant in Emporia, Kans., where the tainted food was manufactured, had never been inspected by government officials until after consumers started complaining about pets dying of kidney failure. The Emporia plant remains open and continues to produce new food, according to a Menu Foods spokesperson, who adds that safety tests are being done around the clock.
The FDA says Ontario-based Menu Foods began to receive complaints about renal failure on Feb. 20 and began on Feb. 27 to conduct a series of taste tests on 40 to 50 dogs and cats, leading to the eventual death of at least nine cats. On March 16, the company issued its North American recall of pet food sold under 95 different brand names manufactured between Dec. 3 and March 6, including popular brands such as Iams and Eukanuba, plus many store brands sold at large retailers such as Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie and Publix.
The chief executive of Menu Foods told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the company is looking at one unnamed ingredient as the possible cause of the renal failure. The FDA has previously said the investigation is focusing on possibly contaminated wheat gluten, a common ingredient in pet foods. FDA inspectors have been sent to Menu Foods plants in Kansas and New Jersey.
But without regular inspections, the pet-food industry is largely self-regulated. In the United States, the Association of American Feed Control Officials sets guidelines and definitions for pet foods, and there are other government standards and regulations that companies are expected to heed through their own quality-assurance programs.
"It's wide open. As far as ingredients go, there is no regulation," says Ann Martin, a Canadian pet-health advocate and author of three pet-food-related books, including 1997's "Food Pets Die For: Shocking Facts About Pet Food." While the raw materials used in commercial pet food often contain animal protein derived largely from slaughterhouse offal—unused animal parts—Martin contends that there are other sources of that material, including road kill, zoo animal carcasses and fecal matter.
The industry insists their products are absolutely safe. "Pet foods are the highest regulated product you'll find in the grocery store," says Duane Ekedahl, president of the Pet Food Institute (PFI), an industry trade association representing the interests of 20 member companies whose products make up about 97 percent of the dog and cat food produced in the United States. While serious, the Menu Foods recall shouldn't be blown out of proportion, says Ekedahl, who points out that the recalled food accounts for less then 2 percent of the overall market. He adds that every pet-food company conducts extensive tests, both of incoming raw materials and of finished products. On Tuesday, PFI issued a statement claiming that "All cat and dog food products on store shelves are safe. The recall is now complete and all suspected products have been removed from the stream of commerce."
That's little comfort to the small number of families that have lost their pets. On Tuesday, two lawsuits were filed in relation to the allegedly tainted food. One, filed by a Chicago woman, alleges that Menu Foods delayed announcing its recall despite knowing its products were contaminated and potentially deadly. The number of pet deaths may grow as veterinarians around the country are now combing through their records of recent deaths involving acute kidney failure. Animal hospitals report hundreds of phone calls from distraught pet owners who lost animals to renal disease in the weeks and months before the food recall.
While chronic kidney failure is "fairly common" in older dogs and cats, acute kidney failure is not. "We really don't see it very often. It's not common at all," says Dr. Sandy Willis, a board-certified internist with the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. As far as the likelihood of a batch of fungus-tainted wheat gluten causing such severe kidney failure, Willis says she is "somewhat puzzled by that. It doesn't seem to be a fungus." The FDA is also looking into whether heavy metals or mold could be the culprit. Until investigators are able to solve the mystery, the simple daily act of feeding pets is likely to be a fraught exercise for many cat and dog owners.