Food is supposed to provide nutrients so that those who partake in it can maintain health and grow stronger. The recall of melamine-spiked pet food a few months ago has many owners wondering what, if any, steps are taken to ensure the quality and safety of commercial pet food.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine is tasked with regulating that can of cat food, dog food, or box of dog treats in your cupboard. The pet food industry is a multibillion dollar industry.
Federal regulation requires that pet foods, like human foods, be safe, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled. In addition, canned pet foods must be processed in conformance with the low acid canned food regulations to ensure the pet food is free of viable microorganisms. The ingredients must be listed in descending order of predominance by weight, and identified by their common or usual names. The label must list any artificial flavoring or artificial coloring, or chemical preservatives. If the food is to be used only under certain conditions, or only with other foods, this must be stated on the label.
Due to limited resources, the FDA has to prioritize inspections. They do so based on risk associated with the product. The FDA will send federal agents to visit pet food plants if there is a consumer complaint or risk to animal health. Since 2004, only about 30 percent of all pet food plants have been inspected according to FDA statistics.
If contaminated food is found in the marketplace, federal regulators rely heavily on the manufactures to inform them and voluntarily pull their products from the retailer's shelves. The FDA does not have the authority to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated or dangerous food. This is a clear gap in the pet and human food safety system that should be addressed.
Pet food manufacturers are also required to adhere to state laws and standards. This may be where the most meaningful regulation of pet foods occurs. Each individual state has its own regulations and its own Department of Agriculture, which oversees the sale of pet food within its borders. Before a new brand or a new type of pet food can be sold in a given state, the maker is required by law to register the new food in each state in which it will be sold. The state's feed control officials are responsible for examining the food's label claims and the food itself. Like the FDA, state agriculture inspectors can visit pet food plants to make sure they're adhering to the laws. However, most don't.
In their defense, pet food makers do a fairly good job of policing themselves for the most part. Self-monitoring is not uniform across all companies; most manufacturers strive to be extremely diligent in their efforts when it comes to product quality and animal health.
In this most recent crisis, no amount of regulation or procedure would have caught the melamine-an industrial chemical used to make fertilizers and plastics. It was outside the parameters of known contaminants. They had no way of anticipating it and no way of preventing it.
The more you learn about the pet food industry, the more you feel you should worry about your pets' food. The kind of regulation and oversight that many of us assume is present over the industry as a whole really doesn't exist. It is amazing that the industry is as "clean" as it is. In an ideal world, every food would have to pass feeding trials and lab tests and prove sufficient (not harmful) nutrient levels on an ongoing basis. But in this world, unfortunately our pets represent "test animals," and we are providing the feeding trials.
Kathy Olak is a member of the Huron County Humane Society who writes a monthly column. The Humane Society investigates cases of animal abuse and neglect. The animal abuse hotline is (419) 663-7158.