What’s Killing Our Pets?

The government is failing to adequately inspect the ingredients in pet food.

The government is failing to adequately inspect the ingredients in pet food.

The commercial pet foods industry rakes in billions of dollars annually. In exchange for our dollars, we trust the companies to provide our pets with quality nutrition. The recent pet food recall demonstrated that our trust has been misplaced. But while many were shocked by the tragic deaths of beloved pets, many more would be shocked to know that the pet food industry has a long history of mistreating our pets.

I first began researching the industry in 1990, when my two dogs became ill after eating a well-known commercial food. The first thing that came to light was the fact that the pet food industry is virtually self-regulated. The only requirement that the industry must meet is to adhere to the Labeling Act, which states that food must contain the name and address of the producing company, whether the product is intended for dogs or cats, the weight of the food, and the guaranteed analysis. The source of the protein included in the analysis can be anything: condemned material from slaughterhouses, road-kill, zoo animals, and even euthanized companion animals. Of course, the industry denies all this, especially the use of dead dogs and cats in pet foods. However, a senior official from a large rendering conglomerate in the US wrote to me, “I know of no rendering company in the US that will segregate companion animals from the rest of the raw material they process.”

Dog eat dog?

I personally have been able to trace euthanized pets from veterinary clinics in the city where I live to rendering plants where they are processed; the end results are shipped to pet food companies. Pentobarbital, the drug used to euthanize these animals, ends up being fed to our pets. Results of a study conducted by the University of Minnesota show that pentobarbital “survived rendering without undergoing degradation.”

In the late 1990s, officials from the Food and Drug Administration, Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA/CVM) decided to investigate a theory that dogs were exposed to pentobarbital through dog food. Researchers developed a test to detect pentobarbital in dry commercial dog foods. Tests were conducted in 1998 and again in 2000. The first series of tests detected only the presence of pentobarbital but did not indicate the levels that were present in the foods. The second series of tests used 25 samples: 15 were found to contain pentobarbital. Ol’ Roy, Heinz, Kibbles ‘n Bits, Trailblazer, Dad’s,
Purina Pro Plan, Reward, and a number of lesser-known brands were among thepet foods showing various levels of pentobarbital.

In tests designed to dispute that dogs and cats are the source of pentobarbital in pet food, the FDA/CVM conducted DNA testing to ascertain what animals might be in the food. In a statement released on their Web site, they stated that no dog or cat DNA was found, and that “the pentobarbital residues are entering pet food from euthanized, rendered cattle and even horses.” Their report two years later in the American Journal of Veterinary Research contradicted these findings. “None of the 31 dog food sample examined in our study tested positive for equine-derived proteins.” Additionally, they stated: “Cattle are only occasionally euthanized with pentobarbital, and thus are not considered a likely source of pentobarbital in dog food.” Their conclusion? “Although the results of our study narrow the search for the source of pentobarbital, it does not define the source (ie. species) responsible for the contamination.

Hold the poison, please

According to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), pet food is considered adulterated if the “food is packaged or held under unsanitary conditions, food or ingredients are filthy or decomposed, and foods contain any poisonous or deleterious substance.” As pentobarbital is considered a poisonous drug, it would therefore be logical that the FFDCA would work to remove that substance from pet foods. I asked Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA/CVM, what steps the organization would undertake to remove pentobarbital from all commercial foods. His reply: “This drug is not approved for use in pet food, so it should not be present in these foods. That being said, CVM is not planning to undertake any special enforcement efforts to detect pentobarbital in pet foods.” The contention of the FDA/CVM is that this drug was found in such small amounts in the pet foods that it should not cause a problem. Dr. Tamara Hebbler of the Healing Hope Animal Clinic in San Diego, California disagrees. By feeding your pets foods that contain even traces of pentobarbital, Hebbler states, “you can definitely be slowly causing chronic degenerative disease to happen, much, much faster.”

Along with a euthanizing drug that could be in your pet food, you’ll find additives, preservatives, vitamins, and mineral mixes that are usually added in higher amounts than deemed necessary because the processing can degrade these supplements. At present dog food manufacturer Royal Canin is facing a $50 million class action suit on behalf of pet owners who claim that some of Royal Canin’s foods contain excess levels of vitamin D, often damaging or fatal to pets.

Over the years, there have been numerous pet deaths caused by foods contaminated with mycotoxins, caused by a fungus found in moldy grains. One of the mycotoxins – vomitoxin – can cause diarrhea and vomiting in pets, but is seldom fatal. This toxin was the cause of the Nature’s Recipe recall in 1995. In December of 2005, aflatoxin, a deadly form of mycotoxin, was found in food produced by Diamond Pet Foods. The company recalled 34 million pounds of contaminated dog and cat food that eventually killed over 100 dogs. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, Diamond failed to follow company guidelines for aflatoxin testing and shipped contaminated products. In a warning letter from the FDA, Diamond was advised that testing of retained samples “revealed aflatoxin levels between 90 and 1851 parts per billion (ppb).” Acceptable levels are less than 20 ppb. People lost their beloved pets because a company chose to take the easy route and not bother with proper testing.

Total recall

March 2007 saw the largest recall in the history of the industry. Menu Foods, a Canadian-based company, recalled more than 60 million cans and pouches of wet food that had been distributed all over North America. Iams, Eukanuba, and Nutro were implicated in the scandal. Eventually Nestle Purina, Royal Canin, Diamond Pet Foods, and Hills Pet Nutrition were added to the list, and in early April, some dry foods and pet treats were also included in the recall. Sunshine Mills and Del Monte recalled dog biscuits and other pet treats. In total, over 153 brands of pet foods and treats were taken off the shelves. Natural Balance, which many considered safe and top of the line, also recalled a line of their foods. The cause? Wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate contaminated with melamine, a material used to manufacture kitchen utensils, and, in China, fertilizer.

Melamine was added to the wheat and rice to boost the protein levels. Two US companies had imported the contaminated wheat and rice from China, and it was distributed to a number of pet food operations across North America. The number of reported deaths and illnesses in pets varied, depending on the source, from 16 to more than 3,000.

Later in the investigation, a team at the University of Guelph also found cyanuric acid and melamine in the tissues, kidneys, and urine of infected pets. (Cyaniric is a stabilizer used in swimming pools.) “We took some ordinary cat urine and added three drops of melamine and three drops of cyanuric acid, and we got the identical crystals that we see in the kidneys of the affected cats,” said team leader Brent Hoff, a clinical toxicologist and pathologist. It was also learned that American Nutrition of Ogden, Utah, a company that processed a number of foods for various companies, had added the contaminated rice protein to these products unbeknownst to the companies involved.

I have talked to many people who are skeptical that the pet food industry would use such inferior ingredients. But slowly they are beginning to question what they are feeding their pets. We have seen the rates of cancer, liver and kidney disease, auto-immune diseases, allergies, and skin problems rise in the years since this industry grew. As our veterinary bills mount, we have been brainwashed by the industry to think that if we feed our pets human food, we will be causing them great harm. While it is not recommended to include your pets in your junk food habits, there is no harm in sharing a well-balanced diet with your pet. You wouldn’t want to eat food from the same bag every day, so don’t force your pets to do just that.

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