Monday, July 4, 2011

Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, by Marion Nestle--A Review

University of California Press, ISBN 9780520205899, 2008

In mid-March 2007, American pet owners heard the alarming news that several popular brands of cat food were apparently contaminated, and causing acute kidney failure in cats. Then the frightening reports began to include dogs, and then more and more brands, flavors, and types of dog and cat food. Fear, frustration, and anger spread as the FDA held press conferences every Friday afternoon assuring the public that the pet foods remaining on the shelves were safe and wholesome, and Friday evenings after the close of the news cycle, new recalls were announced.


While the FDA vigorously pursued the cause and source of the contamination, they were less interested in communicating their current knowledge to the public. They would not identify suspect brands and lines; only those confirmed contaminated. Nor were they interested in determining how many pets were affected; while thousands of pet owners struggled with the sudden illness or death of their pets, the FDA continued to repeat "16 confirmed deaths"--the number that died in the Menu Food feeding trials that were the first early warning of the impending crisis.

Marion Nestle lays out the history of that trying period, including the roots of the contamination problem, how the natural behavior of corporations in seeking the cheapest sources of needed ingredients led both to buying "wheat gluten" and "rice protein concentrate" that turned out to be plain old wheat flour contaminated with melamine, and to pet food companies, the names we knew and trusted, having no real idea what was in their products (as opposed to what they intended to be in their products.) She recounts the first hint of trouble in the Menu Foods feeding trials, Menu's slow response, and Proctor & Gamble's critical role in giving Menu an ultimatum: "We're announcing a recall tomorrow; you do what you want." (Once P&G announced, Menu would be forced out of their "caution,"and would look worse if they didn't do it "voluntarily.")

Her account includes the development of "pet bloggers" into real journalists, doing far better investigative journalism than "professional" news media, in response to the desperate need of pet owners for news on the recalls: what to feed, what had been recalled or was likely at risk of recall, what they should be telling their vets if their pets became ill, what they should do with recalled food.

Nestle also follows the recalls and the recalled food, showing how the human, pet, and livestock food supplies are all the same food supply, and contamination in one part of it is a threat to all parts of it. Pet food is made from the (often very nutritious) unwanted "leftovers" of human food production. Pet food that can't be sold--including recalled pet food, unless someone is paying close attention--is sold as "salvage" and becomes livestock feed. Livestock animals are then slaughtered and sold as food  for humans...  The last stage of this process, in 2007, eventually got cut short in part, but not completely. In the end chickens that had eaten melamine-contaminated pet food were released into the human food supply.

And thus the subtitle of this book: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine. Those who, like Rosie O'Donnell, mocked the uproar over "less than two dozen pets" while American soldiers were dying in much larger numbers in Iraq, were missing the point. It wasn't "just pets"; pets were the early warning of the vulnerability of our food supply, of the lack of protection we have against either fraud or terrorism targeting our food.

This is, in many ways, a frightening book to read, and probably more frightening if you didn't have a cat or dog in the spring of 2007, and mostly missed this story at the time. It is, however, an important one, and vital to understanding what we need to do for the safety of our own and our pets' food in the coming years.

I purchased a copy of this book at my local bookstore.