Personal Health

Pet Food Politics: Why Our Pets Still Aren't Safe

The author of <i>Pet Food Politics</i> exposes how the '07 pet food crisis happened and why it is a sign of a larger problem with our own food system.
In 2007, American pet owners found out about a large-scale experiment the food industry carried out on our pets. What happens if you streamline, centralize and outsource food production with no goals other than profit? In the case of pet food, the system worked until it didn't. And when it didn't, thousands of dogs and cats died due to eating more than 100 brands of pet food contaminated with melamine and cyanuric acid. Like a dead canary used to alert miners of methane and carbon monoxide, our dead pets are a warning about our own food safety.

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, recognized the significance of the 2007 pet food crisis immediately. She did what our government should have done: She researched how melamine and cyanuric acid could have entered the pet (and human) food supply under the guise of wheat gluten and chronicled the story from start to finish in her newest book, Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine.

Nestle points out in previous books that it can be hard to prove the effects of any one food because humans eat diets of many foods, making it almost impossible to identify the effects of any specific one. Pets serve as our canaries because they do eat diets consisting almost entirely of one food. Also, the pet food business is even more centralized than the highly consolidated human food supply. With difficult nutrition and taste specifications and expensive manufacturing equipment required to make pet food, companies find it most economical to outsource production to specialized operations like Menu Foods, the company responsible for importing the tainted wheat gluten. When the Chinese supplier substituted wheat flour dressed up with melamine and cyanuric acid for wheat gluten, pets died on a mass scale.

Pet Food Politics reads like a gripping murder mystery, exposing how the pet food crisis happened, what it means for the human food supply, and why the current system of government oversight is insufficient for pets, farm animals and humans. I've enjoyed each of Nestle's books more than the last, and I found Pet Food Politics the most entertaining of all. I also appreciate Nestle's compassion for animals, as she understands that we parents of furry children love our cats and dogs as more than "just pets." I asked Nestle a few questions about Pet Food Politics; you'll find her answers below.

Jill Richardson: At what point did you know you needed to write about the pet food crisis of 2007? What in particular about the story made it a compelling topic for you?

Marion Nestle: This is a long story. My book What to Eat came out in 2006. It's not really a book about what to eat; it's about how to think about what to eat using supermarkets as an organizing device. I went through supermarkets, aisle by aisle, trying to answer every question anyone might have about the issues related to food choices, from nutrition to environmental impact. I kept seeing this huge aisle devoted to dog and cat foods and would look at the products but couldn't understand their labels. If I didn't understand them, I suspected other people might not either. My partner, Mal Nesheim, is a retired animal scientist. He had no trouble understanding them. Aha! Let's do a book together! We signed a contract with Harcourt in February 2007 to write What Pets Eat. And then, one month later, came the recalls. I knew we would have to talk about the recalls in our book. I started working on what I envisioned as a 10-page appendix to What Pets Eat about the recalls, but I totally got into trying to figure out what had happened. The piece got ridiculously out of hand. Fortunately, University of California Press picked it up as a separate book.

JR: What was the top reason that allowed the pet food problems to reach the magnitude they did? Was it preventable?

MN: The number one reason is that nobody was paying any attention to food ingredients imported from China. After that, the reasons multiply. Pet food companies had no idea where their ingredients came from. The manufacture of pet foods is complicated, so it is centralized in a few manufacturing facilities that make many different brands. The food supply for pets is so tightly linked to the food supplies for people and farm animals that the food supplies cannot be separated; what affects one, affects all. The FDA has lost so much funding over the last 10 years or so that it can't do its job. And China is an important trading partner as well as an exporter of cheap goods. This is a hugely complicated, interconnected story that I thought was well worth telling.

JR: What do you think readers will find most shocking about what our pets eat?

MN: What shocked me the most was the lack of oversight. Readers may feel differently. I expected to be appalled by what is in pet foods, but I think they are really OK. Dogs and cats don't mind eating parts of animals that we wouldn't dream of eating. Pet foods perform an important public service in making good use of the nutritious byproducts of human food production. Otherwise, those byproducts would go to waste and have to be thrown in landfills or burned.

JR: This summer the FDA was unable to uncover the source of a salmonella outbreak for several months, and even Whole Foods was subject to a recent beef recall due to E. coli. Do your discoveries about pet food translate into dangers for humans too?

MN: Absolutely. Hence Chihuahua in the Coal Mine. Within months, exactly the same thing happened with the drug heparin. Chinese suppliers were using chondroitin sulfate instead of heparin because the test for heparin just looks at sulfate. This is just like using melamine in wheat flour as a substitute for wheat gluten in pet foods (where the test just looks at nitrogen). Both turned out to be lethal. The lesson is that companies must be vigilant about tracking and testing ingredients. It is also clear that we need a better food safety system, one that requires everyone in the food supply, from farm to table, to do the right thing.

JR: Recently, the government began allowing irradiation of lettuce and spinach. Would you have made the same decision if you were in charge? Do you think irradiation will help?

MN: Yeah, right. Irradiation is a late-stage techno-fix to a problem that should never have happened in the first place. I love quoting Carole Tucker Foreman, a former undersecretary of agriculture, on this point: "Sterilized poop is still poop."

JR: Do you think an Obama or a McCain presidency will be better for food safety?

MN: I'm an Obama supporter -- and let's hope he wins by a landslide, because that's what it will take to give him a mandate to make some positive changes. Otherwise we will be stuck with another four years of business as usual.

JR: Do you think that the efforts to relocalize food (farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, etc.) will help Americans' ability to access safe food?

MN: Definitely. It's not that local food is 100 percent safe. That would be unreasonable to expect. But local food doesn't sit around as long or travel as far, and if it does cause problems, those problems will be confined locally. They won't affect people in 38 states.

JR: Do you have a suggestion for "locavores" who wish to feed their pets ethically produced, healthy food, or is that still uncharted territory?

MN: I've come to believe that just as people can eat many different kinds of diets that promote excellent health, so can dogs and cats. Commercial pet foods work, raw foods work, home-cooked foods work. Pet owners need to find a nutritionally complete method that meets their pets' needs and conforms to the level of convenience they need and to their personal value systems. There are plenty of options for doing all that, and none of them is difficult. And that's the point of What Pets Eat, which should come out in late 2009.

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Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. Her first book, about food politics, is due out in June 2009.