How Long Has This Been Going On? Have Our Pets Paid A Price For Months, Even Years?


This is a special expanded web version of Steve’s newspaper column

            Overnight, commercial pet foods turned from safe to suspect. But how safe have pet foods been all along, or for at least since some ingredients have been imported from China? As an old song title from the 1970’s goes, “How Long Has This Been Going On?”

            Beginning in March, Menu Foods announced a recall of nearly 100 brands of pet foods. To date, twice that many brands have been recalled by Menu Foods as well as a long list of various pet food makers. No one knows how many pets were sickened, or died after eating tainted pet food. However, it’s likely more lives were impacted than by any food recall in recent history.

            Scientists believe that what caused the problem was Chinese imported melamine (used in fertilizers in Asia) when combined with elements such as cyanuric acid (for the chlorination process in swimming pools) used as ‘filler’ in wheat gluten (or with wheat flour), or rice protein

            According to Dr. Richard Goldstein, internal medicine specialists and assistant professor Small Animal Medicine at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, it was this combination (melamine and cyanuric acid)  which caused the unique crystals which formed in the urine of pets who ate the tainted food, causing an acute kidney failure syndrome.

            At a recent Food and Drug Administration press conference, David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection for the FDA admitted melamine was seen in pet food samples dating as far back as early in 2006. Preceding this date, he said no one knows or will likely ever know if melamine was or was not in pet foods.

            So, is it possible our pets’ health (and cats in particular since they seem to be more prone to kidney problems) was compromised for some time before the initial recall  in a way that remains, to date, a mystery to veterinary medicine?

             “We can’t exclude that it didn’t make pet’s sick,” said Acheson. “All we can say is that it (melamine) didn’t make them as sick as in 2006 because it didn’t come to anybody’s attention. But we can not rule out that it didn’t make pets sick.”

            Of course, the unique crystals formed by eating the tainted food may not have come to anyone’s attention simply because no one was looking was for them.  

            “Maybe the effect is long-term, eating food with melamine daily for a long time,” wonders Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins of Yorba Linda, CA. “We don’t know, in part, because there are no long-term feeding trials, No one expected that a long term diet of cat foods could be a caused for dilated cardiomyopathy (in cats) as a result of a deficiency of taurine (an amino acid required by cats) until it was discovered in the 1980’s.”

            Dr. Kathy Michel, veterinary nutritionist and associate professor of nutrition at the University of the Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Philadelphia concedes this entire this entire discussion of melamine’s impact before the initial recall is pure

speculation. After all, no one knows how much melamine was in pet food – if any – prior to 2006. “However, we do know sometimes the affect of diet on health isn’t immediately evident,” she says. “Certainly, we need to find a way to determine an answer to that question.”

            Indeed some veterinarians have reported an increase of acute kidney failure over the course of the past year or two. Dr. Margie Scherk, who is in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia is also president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. She says she doesn’t know about more acute kidney failure in her practice, but she has seen more kidney stones. Although, these aren’t the unique crystals clearly associated with sickness and death linked to the tainted food. “Is it possible something has been going on? Sure is,” she says. “But it’s even more possible nothing at all has going on relating to pet foods, except we’ve done better at finding the stones.”

            Along those lines, although melamine in the wheat gluten, wheat flour or rice protein (or combined with other substances like cyanuric acid) mimics protein when measured, it has absolutely no nutritional value. So, since melamine (and related substances) replaced at least some real protein source in the tainted food, could some pets (and cats in particular since they require lots of protein) actually have developed nutritional deficiencies as a result of eating tainted food over many, many months?

           At another recent FDA press conference, Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine said, “That’s a reasonable point to raise. All commercially available pet foods are nutritionally balanced to meet requirements of dogs and cats. So obviously, if there were ingredients underrepresented, like protein, that could result in health problems.”

            However, Angelle Thompson, a pet food nutritionist and chair of the Pet Food Institute Created National Pet Food Commission points out, “Pet food companies always exceed minimum requirements. So, while certainly this non-protein source is not a good thing, it’s unlikely to have caused a nutritional deficiency.”

            Michel agrees because the associated wheat gluten or rice protein is used as a binder in foods and is not a primary protein source. Chicken, lamb, beef (and other meat sources) are more likely to be primary protein sources. 

            “It’s true that somehow they (the Chinese firms allegedly responsible) pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes,” adds Michel. “The nitrogen containing compounds (like melamine and cyanuric acid) made it look like there was more protein that there was. It’s like passing a cubic zirconium off as a real diamond.”

            For starters consumers paid for a diamond, a higher protein content than was really in the foods – and that’s not right. But whose fault is it really. Obviously, if the Chinese firms, in fact, did this – as all evidence suggests (and the FDA has confirmed), the blame begins there. But where does it end?

            “Pet food companies couldn’t have known; how could they even suspect this?” Michel says.

            Goldstein adds, “In a strange sort of way, the pet food companies were victims too; apparently brokers involved falsified information as well.  I mean certainly making pets sick and killing some is not good for business.”

            But ultimately should the buck stop in their bags and cans of food? Should they be responsible for what’s inside if their name is on the packaging.

            Hodgkins, who has worked at a pet food company, also testified in Washington D. C. at the oversight hearing of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on April 12. She has long expressed concerns about pet food safety. She conceded that melamine and cyanuric acid aren’t substances FDA inspectors or pet food companies would ever think of testing for. “I understand, you can’t test for every compound on the planet. The problem though is that pet food companies run around with these label claims, including saying they’re positively guarantee to be complete and balanced. So, safety is implied. I don’t believe there’s any malicious intent. Still, they should be held accountable.”

            Thompson, who does work with the pet food industry, is quick to disagree with Hodgkins about the pet food companies being responsible. “As many have pointed out, this might have happened to human food,” she says. “The issue is greater than pet foods, and has to also do with global imports. Coming out of this, I do believe we’ll have safer foods – hopefully human foods and pet foods.”

            Hodgkins says she agrees with that goal as a possibility – but not particularly likely unless real action is taken. Thompson concurs, “I think there will be more scrutiny on food products we import. But I also worry that resources will really be there to do what so many of us want.”

            Dr. Saundra Willis is an internal medicine specialist in Seattle, WA and member of the AVMA Council on Communications says, “Looking back is difficult. As a pet owner, I rather look ahead. I’m optimistic that somehow good will come out of this horrible story.”