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Pet Food Recall Shakes Consumer Confidence


By Rose Gordon

Additional reporting by Marissa Heflin and Mark Nero


Fourteen pets, mostly cats, have died from eating recalled food, and the number is expected to rise.
Nearly a month after the initial recall of 95 brands of dog and cat food produced by Canada-based manufacturer Menu Foods Income Fund, no one is 100 percent certain that all of the contaminated food has been removed from shelves.

“The investigation is very much active and ongoing, and we’re pursuing every lead that we find,” said David Elder, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Enforcement of Regulatory Affairs. 

The FDA announced March 30 that it had found melamine, a synthetic plastic used as a fertilizer in Asia, in the recalled Menu Food products that caused sickness and renal failure in more than a dozen pet deaths. The contaminant, also used in making whiteboards, floor tiles and kitchenware, was found in wheat gluten imported from China, the FDA said. Menu Foods confirmed this finding and said it was no longer using the Chinese supplier of the contaminated wheat gluten. 

Initially the recall applied only to wet “cuts and gravy” style food manufactured by Menu Foods’ New Jersey and Emporia, Kan., plants, but Hill’s Pet Nutrition recalled its Prescription Diet m/d Feline dry food from the market after learning that “during a two-month period in early 2007, wheat gluten for this product was provided by a company that also supplied wheat gluten to Menu Foods,” the company announced March 30 after the FDA alerted it to the presence of melamine in the wheat gluten it tested.

The FDA had previously assured the public that all dry pet food was safe from consumption according to the evidence they had gathered to date.

Nestlé Purina, a brand already affected by the March 16 Menu Foods recall, also pulled additional wet products March 30 after learning that one of its manufacturing facilities had used the same wheat gluten supplier as Menu Foods.

A day later, Del Monte Pet Products, a brand not involved in Menu’s recall, recalled a selection of its pet treat products as well as some of its private label brands of dog snack and wet dog food after the FDA informed it that it had also received a shipment of the tainted wheat gluten from China.

The FDA has since barred imports of wheat gluten from the Chinese supplier and urged inspectors to test other wheat gluten imports, particularly those form China and the Netherlands, a major trade hub for products from China.

Earlier in the month, the New York State Department of Agriculture said that state laboratory tests turned up aminopterin, a product used as a rodenticide in some foreign countries and an anticancer drug in the United States, in some recalled food. But that finding was questioned by some, including the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which operates an animal poison control hotline.

“We’ve seen reports coming in from all around the country that animals that were eating the contaminated foods are definitely suffering from renal failure,” said ASPCA toxicologist Steven Hansen, D.V.M., the senior vice president for the poison control center. “But the data that we’ve been collecting do not conclusively prove this connection [between aminopterin and the animal sickness].”

 The FDA said it was unable to find any evidence of aminopterin in the more than 100 samples it analyzed and is no longer looking at it as a possible contaminant.

Although the association between the animal deaths and the presence of melamine in pet food is “undeniable,” the FDA is not ruling out other contaminants at this time, said Stephen Sundlof, D.V.M., director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.


Fourteen and Counting

The FDA continues to trace all shipments of the wheat gluten, Sundlof said, but it does not believe the product entered the human food supply. Approximately 400 FDA staff members were assigned to the pet food recall case, and the agency’s call center has received 8,800 calls from consumers and veterinarians, although those calls have not been completely analyzed, he said.

The FDA had confirmed only 14 pet deaths at press time but said it expected those numbers to rise.

As of March 30, the Streetsville, Ontario-based Menu said it had received in excess of 300,000 phone calls from people seeking information about the recall, but it confirmed the deaths of 16 dogs and cats due to tainted food.

Veterinary Information Network, a website of 30,000 veterinarians and veterinary students, has used anecdotal evidence to estimate at least 471 cases of kidney failure in pets during the first 10 days of the recall.

Marty Becker, D.V.M., a syndicated pet-care columnist and resident veterinarian on “Good Morning America,” set up a link on his website, www.petconnec tion.com, for consumers to report pet illnesses related to the recall. After 48 hours, 600 people had posted to it, and at press time the site registered 2,900 pet deaths related to the recall.

This is raw, unanalyzed date, Becker said, and is in no way meant to act as an official investigation. He and his partners put it up the weekend the recall was announced “just to get the vital signs to see how big this is,” he said. “We’re looking forward to seeing the FDA come up with more accurate numbers.”


Industry Reacts

Menu initially recalled its “cuts and gravy” style foods produced between Dec. 3, 2006, and March 6, 2007, but later asked retailers to remove all of the affected products regardless of the manufacture date after reports indicated some of the recalled product remained for sale, the company said.

Its St. Patrick’s Day posting of recalled pet food affected 95 brands, among them premium national brands Iams and Eukanuba produced by Procter & Gamble’s Pet Care division, Nestlé Purina’s Mighty Dog pouches, some of Colgate-Palmolive’s Hill’s Pet Nutrition Science Diets and a portion of Nutro’s pouch and canned products. The vast majority of the items recalled, however, belonged to grocery store private labels, including Petsmart, Food Lion, Safeway, Hannaford, Kroger, Wal-Mart and Stop & Shop.

Many pet food companies and brands—whether affected by the recall or not—issued recalls or statements ensuring their food’s safety shortly after.

P&G was one of the first, and later issued a statement saying, “Until the cause is known, P&G Pet Care will no longer produce any products at the Menu Foods Emporia, Kan., plant.”

Hill’s, Nestlé Purina and Nutro Products also launched recalls of their affected products, even though Nutro noted that “Menu Foods has indicated that none of the products that may have given rise to pet illness or death were Nutro’s products.”

Although not involved in the recall, Natura Pet Products of Santa Clara, Calif., said it would no longer use Menu Foods as its cannery and would instead build its own manufacturing plant so it could exercise complete control over its food.

Meanwhile, retailers worked to clear the products from their shelves and inform the public of their efforts through website postings and other media. On the morning Menu released the names of the affected foods, Petsmart used internal communications, including phone trees and a company Intranet, to make sure each of its 910-plus stores received a phone call about the recall, said spokeswoman Michelle Friedman. Products were pulled regardless of the manufacture date, she added.

Petsmart posted signs in its stores and used its Pet Perks, a loyalty rewards program, to e-mail alerts to registered customers who had purchased the recalled products as well as general information on the recall.

Pet Food Express, a San Francisco Bay Area-retailer with 31 stores, initially stopped selling all wet food items in pouches and cans, according to Terrance Lim, its chief operating officer. This was later amended as more information was provided by Menu and the FDA, co-owner Michael Levy said. Pet Food Express also posted signs about the recall in its stores and used its website to inform customers.

Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Product Manufacturers Assn., said the key to a successful recall is strong collaboration between the manufacturer and retailers.

“The response of the industry is under a microscope at this time,” he said. “Retailers are on the spot because they’re the ones on the front line working with the consumer.”

Retailers can distinguish themselves by getting the product off the shelf quickly and keeping their customers informed, Vetere said.

“I think that this is an unfortunate incident, and we’re still waiting for all the facts to come in,” he said. “As an industry, we need to be smart enough not to let this happen again.”

Vetere said that most of those involved in the recall reacted quickly and appropriately, but “the jury is still out” on Menu.

According to the FDA, Menu first learned of consumer complaints related to the recalled products on Feb. 20. One week later, according to the FDA, Menu began routine taste tests with 25 cats and 15 dogs to check the products’ palatability, and cats began falling ill March 2. Menu reported the recall to the FDA March 15, the government agency said.

Sarah Tuite, a Menu Foods media relations representative, questioned those dates.

“My understanding is that taste test results didn’t come back until later in March,” she said. She also said that the veterinarians who treated the animals involved in the Feb. 20 complaints indicated the cats were outdoor pets that could have consumed something other than the Menu-produced food before becoming ill.


Winning Back Consumers

Although the recall reportedly affected only 1 percent of all pet food sold in the U.S., some consumers are looking for alternative feeding choices.

Elizabeth Krottinger, owner of Poochey Shoos, wound up with all five of her small dogs, which model her animal fashions, in the hospital with varying degrees of kidney failure after they consumed food involved in the recall. The worst case spent a week with the vet, Krottinger said. All her dogs survived, and are now eating special diets to maintain kidney health.

“I’m feeling so blessed and lucky,” she said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed.” Krottinger said she was feeding a respected brand that her dogs absolutely love when they became ill.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with food choices in the future,” she said. “I’ll probably make them chicken and rice.”

Citing wheat gluten as the vehicle for contamination, many purveyors of organic and other specialty diets marketed as natural found themselves in a position to highlight their products.

Lucy Postins, director of marketing for San Diego-based Honest Kitchen, said she has seen a fourfold increase of interest in their gluten-free products, which include dehydrated raw cat and dog foods.

“It’s definitely inspiring people to take a good hard look at what they’re feeding their pets,” Postins said, adding that consumers were likely “shocked and saddened” to find premium brands manufactured in the same plants as store brands.

Concerned pet owners have called Chip Cannon’s office nonstop since the recall, he said. Cannon, D.V.M., owner and founder of City Pet Cos., a Dallas-based company that consists of three retail pet supply stores, three veterinary practices and two boarding facilities, said they all want to know if the diet they’re feeding is safe, he said.

Dr. Cannon said that his stores do carry some of the brands affected by the recall, but he hopes the recall will serve as a wake-up call to the industry and pet owners.

“Our call to action for pet owners is to learn how nutrition is the most important effect on their pets’ health,” he said.

Cannon said he will continue to recommend all-natural, low-carbohydrate and high-protein food, especially those that carry the Association of American Feed Control Officials testing seal.

The FDA and many veterinarians, however, sought to reassure consumers that most pet food on store shelves is not only safe for consumption but also nutritious.

“If the product is not the subject of the recall, owners should feel confident in feeding those products,” Sundlof said. “We believe pet owners should continue to buy pet food products that are outside of that recall list.”

“Commercial pet foods for dogs and cats are designed by Ph.D. nutritionists,” said Tony Buffington, D.V.M., of Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “There are very few humans that have diets that are designed by Ph.D. nutritionists.” Dr. Buffington said he realized emotions were running high, but that pet foods are designed to provide complete nutrition.


More Regulations to Come?

As the third of four pet food recalls of 2007, and less than two years after the fungus aflatoxin caused the recall of several Diamond Pet Foods products, some questioned the amount of regulation in place for pet foods.

Sundlof, however, defends current regulations. “Regulations between animal and human foods do not differ,” he said. “The same people that inspect human food plants also inspect pet food plants.”

Human-food producing plants, do, however, receive more frequent inspections than pet food ones because they represent higher risks, he said.

“Traditionally, pet food producers are considered low risk, because with few exceptions— and this being certainly one of those exceptions—pet food is very safe,” he said. “We have not had a lot of illnesses in pets as a result of pet food.”

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act requires that pet foods be wholesome, safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances and be properly labeled, he said.

Menu’s New Jersey plant was inspected last year, but inspection officials had not visited the Emporia, Kan., plant until March 16 when they followed up on the recall, the FDA said. The plant, however, passed the inspection, the FDA said March 30.

Holly Sher, president of Illinois-based pet food cannery Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co. Inc.—which makes a wet food not affected by the recall— said she has quite a few regulations and inspections to contend with, including USDA, FDA, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the European Union and organic and kosher inspections, not to mention the local fire codes and city health departments.

“It could happen to anyone in the food train,” she said. “We all have to learn from it.”

The APPMA echoed that sentiment.

“This is not a regulatory issue; this is just new information that needs to go into the system,” Vetere said. “I’m sure you’ll see this tested for now in raw materials.”


Financial Crunch

Menu estimates the recall will cost it between $30 million and $40 million. A week into the recall, Paul Henderson, president and chief executive officer of Menu, remained optimistic about the company’s future despite several pending class-action lawsuits in the United States and Canada aimed at reaping compensation from the manufacturer for pets affected by the contaminated products.

“We have a strong, sustainable business, and we’re confident about the future,” he said.

Menu said it would take responsibility for vet bills related to the sickness or death of animals if its food was to blame.

Retailers, including Friedman, said it was too early to tell if their stores would take a financial hit due to the recall.

Posted: April 23, 2007

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