Written by Gary Alexander
In dedication to 9-year-old Jizo, who died of renal failure in the early stages of the recall. We miss you, boy.
Those who have been following the twisting course of the ongoing PET FOOD recall crisis have been privileged to witness a remarkable exercise in slight-of-hand, deception and deceit on the part of a corporate media culture determined to keep an already explosive story from detonating fully. With few exceptions, the key words underlying the crisis have been kept out of the debate for an alarming and disheartening reason…
In retrospect, the mysterious wave of deaths from acute renal failure and similar illnesses had begun to rise last year but failed to attract widespread attention until early March. Kidney failure has, in fact, been a leading cause of pet death for over a decade but the toll was rising dramatically in 2007. The first company to issue a recall notice, after it was observed that “routine” taste tests in February were killing one in six of their test animals, was the Canadian distributor, Menu Foods, who initially recalled over 60 million cans of “wet food.”
At the time the recall was announced, an employee of the NY State Health Department confided that a rodent poison named ‘aminopterin’ had been detected in pet food samples by a state lab but, like so much else in this episode, the idea that folic acid-inhibiting rat poison (detected in only two samples, according to an early story on the recall), suggestive of other symptoms which should have been present but were not, could have contaminated 873 hundred tons of wheat gluten destined for pet food just didn’t add up even in a layman’s mind. Cornell University quickly entered the investigation but, like the FDA, failed to confirm the aminopterin traces.
Toward the end of the month, the new villain was announced to be the industrial chemical melamine, which was present in the urine of affected animals but, in none of the readily available studies, displayed anywhere near the toxicity levels that would account for the lethal results reported. Again, the idea that a chemical contaminant could infect so many tons of wheat protein also seemed unlikely, prompting suspicions that something else was going on.
Locally, the extent of the secrecy became evident last month when attempts to gauge the impact on pets of the Catskill-Hudson Valley region of the Food and Drug Administration’s national recall of some brands of dog and cat food were met with one of two typical responses from local veterinarians. If no deaths had been reported, area vets and animal hospitals would announce that they had performed some “blood work” for concerned pet owners but no fatalities had been recorded. Responses from other vets when asked about pet fatalities, however, were more along the lines of an ambiguous “We’re only dealing with the (pet) food (company) representatives and we can’t give out that information.”
Since Menu Foods, as lawsuits began being filed in late March, announced that they would be responsible for veterinarian bills proven to associated with the recall, it would seem apparent that some sort of secrecy provision was attached these arrangements. Secrecy and misdirection, in fact, seemed to attend almost every aspect of the recall to the extent that, for weeks in March and early April, the FDA website’s recall page, which withheld vital information about the brand names involved at a critical time, played down the threat by listing pet fatalities in the teens—a number that was reflected in major media coverage until the Associated Press released their first story on the crisis, by Andrew Bridges, on April 9th, advancing an estimate of 39,000 injured animals.
Meanwhile, as websites maintained by veterinarian associations and pet-owner groups were posting deaths in the thousands by the end of March, National Public Radio ran a recall story in early April citing the FDA figure of 17. On the same day, 3,168 dead pets had been recorded in a survey by a pet-owner site. [As of April 28, 2007, 4,546 pets have been reported as deceased.]
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