The 2007 pet food recall that killed thousands of cats and dogs in the United States drew attention to inadequacies in the way the US regulatory system managed the pet food supply chain. Though some people feel removed from the matters concerning pet food, others like Marion Nestle
, a leading authority on food politics and professor at New York University, argue that it’s an alarm warning us of the “safety hazards of globalization.”
In Pet Food Politics, Nestle highlights the perils of a centralized food supply, chronicling the events from the lethal pet food story from the moment manufacturers suspected product contamination to the consequent progress toward overhauling the pet food industry in the US and in China. Nestle wasn’t surprised to find that “priority is given to the interests of pet food companies at the expense of pet health, ” echoing her rhetoric about US food policy as a whole. Nestle also shows how connected we are, even to pets.
Scientists had discovered that wheat gluten and rice gluten (commonly used in pet food to add protein, bind ingredients, and thicken gravy-style foods) was contaminated with melamine, a cheap non-protein chemical rich in nitrogen. Because official assays do not distinguish between nitrogen and non-protein nitrogen, miscreant producers could get away with adding melamine to wheat gluten and passing it off as pure protein wheat gluten. Melamine alone, however, is relatively non-toxic to mammals, according to the FDA. Reassuring isn’t it? It was the presence of another chemical—cyanuric acid—that when combined with melamine formed the crystals were found in the urinary tracts of sick pets.
Once the chemical was isolated, it was a matter of determining how they got into the pet food in the first place. Despite plenty of finger pointing and denying statements, officials eventually discovered a Chinese manufacturer blending melamine into wheat gluten and exporting it through a textile company to avoid inspection. The other company, based in Ohio, made melamine-laden animal feed for cattle, goats, sheep, fish, and shrimp. What shocked Nestle was learning that it was common practice to feed pigs and chickens salvaged pet foods: salvaged meaning damaged products, not recalled, which farmers clarified. Regardless, melamine was now in the human food supply and still is today, as proven by the disclosure of melamine contaminated baby formula in China.
The inefficient structure of all the regulatory bodies overseeing food safety didn’t help the crisis. In the months following the recall neither pet food manufacturers nor the FDA had complete answers for concerned “pet parents.” Pet owners were left in the dark. Many resorted to cooking their own food for their pets or buying organic pet food. Go figure.
The turn to an alternative pet food supply is what beautifully connects this book to Nestle’s other books
on food, food safety, and politics. As a public activist for local and organic food, she couldn’t have made her point more clear: a safe and sound global food system demands safe food for everybody—including pets. “Protection of the health and safety of society’s most vulnerably members [pets] is the cornerstone of American democracy.” The role of all food movements—animal welfare, locavore, organic, and now the “Good Pet Food Movement,” hailing similar themes of health, ethics, and sustainability—is necessary in this era of a global industrialized food system.”