We’re several weeks into the largest pet food safety recall in history, and the situation is getting more confusing all the time. At my office, we’re getting constant calls from worried pet owners, so I thought I’d post this as a PSA and answer a few of the FAQs about the recall. Since I’m not representing any company, I don’t have to be polite with my answers. Consider yourself warned.
On March 17, 2007, Canadian pet food manufacturer Menu Foods, Inc. began recalling a wide variety of pet foods that they co-packed for many different companies in their Emporia, KS plant. Most of the people who bought these foods had never even heard of Menu Foods or co-packing. This caused severe confusion throughout the market, a confusion that spread and worsened when the recall started expanding.
The recall was prompted by reports of sudden kidney failure in cats and dogs that had eaten Menu Foods products. As of this writing, there have only been 15 confirmed deaths from these problems, but it’s possible that the actual death toll is much, much higher. In many cases, damage to the kidneys will not be immediately lethal.
The source of the problem was apparently a contaminated batch of wheat gluten shipped to Menu Foods out of China in late 2006. Wheat gluten, which in itself is generally harmless, is commonly used as a thickener in gravy and a binding agent in many “extruded” snacks and shaped kibble varieties of pet food. Initially the recall list included only “cuts and gravy style” foods sold in cans and pouches, but has grown to include various pet snacks and one variety of dry food.
The contaminating agent in these foods has not been definitively identified yet, despite testing by Menu Foods, the FDA and other groups. The first possible contaminant to be identified by New York State laboratories was a rat poison called aminopterin. However, some vets doubted that aminopterin would have caused the kind of organ failure that had been found in the affected animals 1, and later FDA testing did not confirm aminopterin in the recalled foods.2
What they did find was melamine, a substance that has a variety of industrial uses and has been used as a fertilizer. The effects of melamine on dogs and cats were not studied very much at all before this mess started, so we do not know how it causes kidney failure, but the first modern tests have shown what the FDA calls “ undeniable association between melamine in the kidneys and urine of cats that died and melamine in the food they consumed”3 . More than that we don’t really know yet. It’s entirely possible the melamine in the wheat gluten is masking some other problem.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough already, there is another pet food recall happening concurrently. This one is by Eight In One, and affects dog, cat, and ferret foods and treats suspected to contain salmonella. 4
Q: My darling Princess will only eat Precious Cutesypaws with Lumps of Anthracite. Is that on the list?
A: the list of recalled foods has expanded several times since the recall started. At this point it covers over 100 different brands of cat and dog food, and by the time you read this it may cover several more. Ain’t no way I’m going to answer that question and have you suing my broke ass when Princess croaks two weeks from now. Go to the Menu Foods website AND check Google News for the latest information. Do it now, and do it again in a few days. I also recommend checking in with the FDA from time to time.
In general, if you feed your pets dry food, you’re safe from this specific issue. The only dry food that has been recalled so far is Hill’s Prescription Diet Feline MD. There is, however, no guarantee that things will stay this way, so keep checking in.
Q: What symptoms should I be looking for?
A: First of all, I’m not your vet, and even if I was qualified to make medical judgements I wouldn’t do that over the Net for an animal I’ve never even met. If Fluffy has eaten any of the recalled foods and is showing ANY signs of illness, stop dicking around on the Intarweb and call your vet right now.
Second, according to the AVMA, the signs of illness that we are currently concerned with include “loss of appetite, lethargy, depression, vomiting, diarrhea, sudden changes in water consumption, or changes in the frequency or amount of urination.” Also according to the AVMA, if Fluffy has eaten any of the recalled foods and is showing ANY signs of illness, stop dicking around on the Intarweb and call your vet right now.5 They didn’t use those words, but I did warn you I didn’t have to be polite with my answers.
Third, we don’t yet know the full extent of this problem, nor do we know its exact causes, so if Fluffy has eaten any of the recalled foods and is showing ANY signs of illness, stop dicking around on the Intarweb and call your vet right now.
If you ignore this advice, which is the only professional advice I am qualified to give, I will find you and kick your ass.
Q: since one company actually manufactured all of these foods, doesn’t this recall prove that all those fancy pet foods are really the same as the store brands and crap that I can buy down at the gas station?
A: what are you, an idiot? You use your kitchen to prepare everything from peanut butter and banana sandwiches to Christmas dinner for twelve. Are those things all the same?
A (expanded): “gourmet” foods are not necessarily magically good and nutritious, nor are they immune to economic forces, cross-contamination or human stupidity. The foods on Menu Food’s recall list are all co-packed. One company does prepare all those foods in the same plant. And most of them derive the bulk of their nutritional value from things like corn gluten, wheat gluten and meat meal6 – an ingredient that may legally contain nearly every part of an animal. Sleazy, money-grabbing companies like Wal-Mart and Brand X With Gravy do business this way to save money. Trusted companies like Iams and Nutro do it – wait for it – for the exact same reason. Manufacturers of human foods do much the same thing, by the way.
But the foods themselves are not all the same, any more than your PB&B sandwich and your Christmas dinner. The formulas for the foods are dictated by the individual companies, and different companies are willing to pay different amounts for different levels of quality and nutrition. Although there are some ingredients common to most pet foods, there are also some that are very different.
Generally speaking, the more expensive varieties of pet food use better base ingredients and more nutritional supplements than the crappy grocery-store brands. Paying top dollar for Snookums’ food is not a guarantee of purity, but paying the bare minimum IS a guarantee that Snookums will eventually suffer nutritional deficiencies and/or problems with the many organs that keep him purring and pouncing.
As everyone who has experience with food intolerance or religious restrictions already knows, the best solution is to make yourself an educated consumer. Read labels, and do research to find out what the ingredient names mean. Know what you’re feeding your pet. Be aware that there is always a danger of cross-contamination. The only way to avoid it is to grow your own food or deal with small companies that you trust. And don’t assume that small, “natural” companies are free of the same problems – DO THE RESEARCH! (This is a very good place to start.)
Q: Wouldn’t it be safer to just cook Daisy’s meals myself, or simply share my food with her?
A: Do not, ever, share your food with Daisy. Your diet is not good for her, and is potentially poisonous. It’s probably not even good for you, come to think of it, but it is much worse for Daisy. Did you know that onions, grapes and chocolate are all potentially lethal for dogs? Stop doing this right now.
If you want to cook up a special diet for Daisy, do some research. Many people do this, especially since this recall started, but you need to remember that animal nutritional needs are not the same as your own. The AVMA has a page of information on the subject and links to more: http://www.avma.org/press/releases/070404_homemade_diets.asp.
In general, I’d prefer that you found a better food for Daisy, or talked to your vet about it.
Q: Is this all a major pain in the ass?
A: Yes, it is. Welcome to the modern world.
- “Pet Food Maker to Take Financial Responsibility for Pet Deaths From Poisoning”:
- “FDA: Chemical, not rat poison, in pet food”, AP
- “Recall of Pet Foods Manufactured by Menu Foods, Inc.”
- “Dingo Pet Food Recall”
- “Pet Food Recall F AQ:”
- “Is premium pet food worth it?”
- Menu Foods list of recalled foods: