The March recall of tainted pet food, which killed an unknown number of cats and dogs before the contamination was traced to a shipment of Chinese wheat gluten adulterated with the chemical melamine, focused new attention on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's lack of oversight on foreign imports. It also created confusion and raised questions in consumers' minds, sent manufacturers scrambling to trace their ingredients, and left retailers to answer a host of new questions on the pet foods they stock.
"I think all retailers, from pet food stores to natural foods retailers, have a responsibility to provide information," says Claudia Kawczynska, editor of Berkeley, Calif.-based dog magazine The Bark. "That's especially true for naturals stores because consumers view them as gatekeepers."
The pet food recall involved products under a variety of labels produced by Menu Foods. Many consumers were shocked to see premium brands such as Nutro and Iams alongside discount brands such as Ol' Roy on the recall list. "When you look at the way these products are manufactured, there's a different formulation for each brand, but if the formula calls for wheat gluten, it all comes from the same pot," says Marion Nestle, a food safety expert at New York University who is writing a book on pet food.
Premium brands often have higher-quality, top-tier ingredients, but that's no help when the tainted or adulterated ingred?ient is lower on the label. "I talked to a pet food manufacturer who does high-end, premium pet food," Nestle says. "He could identify with great precision the source of the top third of their ingredients, but after that it was a complete mystery."
It's a challenge for manufacturers—but a necessary one—to know exactly what goes into each of their products, according to Dave Carter, president of Pet Promise, based in Denver. "The important thing, regardless of where the product is manufactured, is what protocols you have for segregating ingredients and ensuring traceability," he says.
The continuing consumer uncertainty about the safety of pet foods has led more and more people to consider products labeled "natural," "organic" or "human-grade ingredients." Many natural, small-batch and premium brands are selling more products amid reports that the brands affected by the recall have seen sales slip by as much as 20 percent.
But these labels alone are not a guarantee of safety. "Human-grade is definitely better, organic is definitely better, but then it gets down to the source, where the ingredients are actually from, and where it's manufactured," Kawczynska says.
"In terms of pet food, the meaning of organic is a work in progress right now," Carter says. "Because there isn't a specific standard for pet food, companies can make organic claims without complying with U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards. Human-grade can be deceptive, too, because it may simply mean that meat was sourced from a slaughter plant."
Currently, the safety of ingredients rests with the FDA, but in practice, guaranteeing safety has fallen squarely on manufacturers. "The big lesson is that nobody is minding the store," Nestle says. "Retailers are dependent on manufacturers to provide foods that are safe, and manufacturers don't know where ingredients come from unless they've checked themselves. This is why we need a strong FDA; they don't need to inspect everything, but enough to act as a deterrent to cheaters."
In the absence of strong enforcement, companies are investigating their own sourcing practices and providing information for consumers and retailers on their Web sites. Pet Promise, for example, points out that its products contain no wheat gluten or rice-protein concentrate—the two ingredients implicated in the recall. "The Web site is the first place for retailers to see what assurances a manufacturer is able to offer through their certification or verification procedures," Carter says.
At this point, retailers need to go directly to manufacturers to get the infor?mation customers are demanding. Since the recall, consumers are interested in sourcing, traceability and ingredient quality—issues that retailers rarely had to provide answers for prior to the melamine scare.
"We don't stock any brands that are part of the recall," says Lynnet Spiegel, owner of Jeffrey's Natural Pet Foods in San Francisco. "We've also created brochures to help answer customer concerns. We assure them that none of our products contain ingredients sourced from China, and we've been offering them organic, raw cat and dog foods, which we produce."
She says when the food poisoning news broke, many customers came in to investigate natural alternatives, but many of them had no idea how the products differed from mainstream offerings.
This combination of new questions and new shoppers is a golden opportunity for education. "It would be great if retailers provided customers with more information as a service to ensure them that you've chosen food that they believe in," Kawczynska says. "For example, a source list for every product—all the ingredients, where they're from, what they are, and what they provide in terms of an animal's health."
In the past, many manufacturers weren't able to provide that information beyond the top third of the ingredient label, but that's changing. "Every company in the industry right now is sitting down, going through all their suppliers and verifying where they get all their ingredients," Carter says. "There is a boom in folks willing to do consulting with companies in the pet food industry to create verification procedures, and a whole lot more attention is being paid to product formulation."
One thing is certain—the pet poisoning deaths and subsequent food recall served as a wake-up call for the entire industry. "Nobody ever asked where the ingredients came from," Nestle says. "If there was any testing, it was for protein. But China is like the Wild West; they don't have the kinds of standards we do."
Avoiding Chinese imports is certain?ly one of the tactics manufacturers are using to avoid contaminants and regain consumer confidence. They're also testing products and ingredients and establishing paper trails for everything in their pet foods. Though this is a fairly straightforward process with major ingredients, it's much harder with binders and fillers that are required for making kibbles stay together. It's safe to say that companies know more about their own products than ever before. Customers will surely be reassured when their local retailer makes the effort to provide that information at the store level.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 84, 86