Pet Food Safety Is Now An Issue….Should It Be?


Anna Marvis is at a Chicago pet superstore to purchase a dog toy for her Bichon Frise, not pet food. “Absolutely, not pet food,” she stresses. “How can I ever trust pet foods again?” She’s now preparing food in her own kitchen with ingredients she purchases where she buys her own food for her fluffy friend, named Ralphie.

No one knows how many pets died or were sickened as a result of the assorted brands of tainted pet foods. However, it’s clear more pets were impacted than by any other pet food recall ever.

Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins, who testified in Washington D. C. at the oversight hearing of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on April 12, has long expressed concerns about pet food safety. She points to previous recalls which haven’t killed or sickened as many pets or any pets, and as a result received less press coverage. “These were warnings that all is not right with our pet foods,” she says. “In general (commercial) pet foods are not safe.”

Duane Ekedahl, executive director of the Pet Food Institute (which represents pet food manufacturers) argues, “People are surprised to hear how regulated pet foods really are. The ingredients that go into the foods are carefully analyzed – and the end products, unlike most human foods, are subject to analysis by state departments of agriculture.”

But how vigilant are the FDA inspections and state agriculture departments really? Not very, according to United States Senator Dick Durbin (D-Il), who called for those Subcommittee hearings. He says the Emporia, KS Menu Food facility – where over 90 brands were recalled – had never been inspected by the FDA.

Still, even if the plant had been inspected dozens of times, all involved agree that officials would not have likely found the contaminant found in the food. According to the FDA, melamine (used in fertilizers in Asia) which accompanied wheat gluten imported from China was the contaminant. Hodgkins concedes, “I’m not arguing that we can look for every possible contaminant substance on earth, and melamine just wouldn’t have been on the list – I know that.”

Coincidentally, Durbin had months before the recall, proposed an idea for a new agency to oversee food safety, and with his suggestion – as usual – a political debate ensued. Durbin now says he’d likely want the agency to oversee pet foods as well.

Meanwhile, Hodgkins, who once worked in the pet food industry and is now runs  an all-cat practice in Yorba Linda, CA says she’s not surprised that fall out of the tragedy has pet owners seeking alternative food sources.

Dr. Tony Buffington

Dr. Tony Buffington

However, veterinary nutritionist Dr. Tony Buffington, professor of clinical nutrition at Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine says manufactured pet food remains his personal choice for his own pets (although he says at least for now, he recommends avoiding foods with wheat gluten).

Websites with recipes on home feeding pets are now populating the internet, and books on the subject are selling like hotcakes. Hodgkins is a fan of the idea, and says, “It’s simple with just a little education.”

However Buffington cautions, “To Michael Jordan shooting a jump shot is simple, for me a jump shot isn’t as simple. Sure, home cooking can be done. But dogs and cats don’t have the same nutritional requirements as we have.”

Hodgkins thinks that point is continually overstated. “We send 18 year old mothers and fathers home with new babies, and we don’t say that children are in grave danger,” she says. “Yet, there’s so much concern about us endangering pets.”

Still, the fact is that pets aren’t people – and the list of what can and does go wrong (with homemade diets) is rather lengthy, according to Buffington. “The reality is that for most pet owners the novelty wears off. It’s just another chore – and when manufactured foods get it right, why is this chore necessary?”

But according to Hodgkins, the pet food companies don’t get it right. She wants transparency in labeling; any claims on pet food labels equivalent to claims made on human food packaging.

In response to the pet food crisis, Ekedahl says the Pet Food Institute has created a Pet Food Commission – to include experts from industry, veterinary medicine and government to make recommendations concerning pet food safety – which could include suggested label changes. But Ekehahl is quick to add, “The problem was tainted food, not food that made pets ill because it wasn’t nutritious.”

Buffington says he understands consumer concerns, and then tells a story about witnessing dogs sitting between the driver and front seat passenger on more than one ocassion. “We’re not always very good about assessing real risk compared to dealing with emotions. What’s good is that we all want what’s right for our pets.”