Sep 4th 2008 The Economist
Books & Arts
Food and pet food -Not on the label
Why pet-food safety matters, even to people who do not have pets
IN THE spring of 2007 contaminated pet food killed thousands of cats and
dogs in America. “Pet Food Politics” by Marion Nestle, one of America’s leading
scholars of food politics, provides a vivid and detailed account of the affair
and its aftermath. The book appears to be aimed at pet-lovers. Ms Nestle is
shown hugging a dog in the jacket photo, and there are glowing quotes from the
editors of Whole Dog Journal and The Bark. But it deserves a wider readership.
Ms Nestle uses the scare, which probably killed around 4,500 animals, to
illuminate the connections between the food supplies of humans, farm animals
and pets, and to highlight the broader failings of food regulation.
The outbreak was caused by shipments of wheat gluten and rice-
protein concentrate from China that had been adulterated with melamine and
cyanuric acid, two cheap chemicals that are rich in nitrogen. Since the usual
test for protein in animal feed just measures the level of nitrogen, these
chemicals can be added to far more expensive feed ingredients without anybody
noticing. Both chemicals can be tolerated in small amounts but are harmful in
large doses, and they are even more dangerous when combined, producing crystals
in the urine and causing potentially fatal kidney damage.
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The contaminants also found their way into the human food
chain, since “salvaged” pet food (left over from the production process) is fed
to chickens and pigs, and wheat gluten also goes into feed for fish and farm
animals. The concentrations involved were much lower there, but Ms Nestle’s
point is that pet food was merely the part of the food-supply system where the
wider problem of contamination and lack of monitoring became apparent.
The researchers who pieced together what went wrong are Ms
Nestle’s heroes; her villains are the regulators and the bosses of the pet-food
companies who were reluctant to look into what caused the problem and to recall
their products. This put pet-owners (or “pet guardians” as some of them
strangely prefer to call themselves) in the agonising position of being unsure
which foods to feed their pets.
Ms Nestle explains how the structure of the pet-food industry
made things worse. Most of the dodgy food was produced by one American
supplier, Menu Foods, which made it on a contract basis for several large
companies. It switched to a Chinese source of wheat gluten to save money, and
the contaminated product then went into dozens of different products made at
its factories. Lax regulation in China was a contributing factor: the
contaminated products may have been mislabelled to avoid inspections, but such
inspections were rare in any case.
So was it the industrialised, globalised, outsourced food-
production system that killed thousands of pets? Ms Nestle does not quite go
that far, though she worthily implies that, despite the extra cost, a “local
food” approach to making pet-food would be safer and would “promote the
viability of rural communities”.
That said, Ms Nestle points out that America itself had the
same problems with food contamination during its own anything-goes spurt of
economic growth, in the late 19th century. Just as those problems, exposed by
Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle”, led to an overhaul of food regulation in
America, so last year’s contamination scare led to a crackdown in China. The
government sent out 33,000 inspectors, who conducted over 10m inspections and
shut down 150,000 unlicensed food companies. China also said it would establish
systems for food recalls and export inspections. Zheng Xiaoyu, who headed its
food-and-drug regulator, was convicted of taking bribes and was executed.
Ms Nestle’s book ends with a plea for another overhaul of
America’s regulatory regime, which is divided between several different
agencies and fails to reflect the interconnected nature of today’s food-supply
systems for humans and animals. She would like more “country of origin”
labelling on food of all kinds, and more funding and authority for America’s
overstretched Food and Drug Administration, the main body responsible for food
She compares the pet-food crisis in America to the outbreak
of mad-cow disease in Europe, which led to a collapse of public trust in food
regulation. She hopes the pet-food affair will be a wake-up call for everyone.
As Ms Nestle puts it: “Advocacy for policies good enough to protect pets also
means advocacy for policies that protect people.”