Is That Wheat Gluten in My Bowl?
LOS ANGELES t would be inaccurate to describe my pets as spoiled utterly rotten. True, we once bought them “designer” dog beds. A costly and failed experiment. And yes, Alma the dog was once driven cross-country (front seat, rented Buick) because she prefers not to fly crate. And okay, sue me, we have dressed them in costumes for Halloween.
But as modern American middle-class pets go, Alma and the auxiliary dog, Blaze, are relatively rough-and-tumble mutts. They don’t wear sweaters. They don’t go to spas. Yet they are happy animals, and the happiest 72 seconds of the day is when dinner is served. So it should come as no big shock that for me, and millions of other Americans, the ongoing pet food debacle has been a hassle and a revelation.
Needless to say, the recalls of tainted food are sowing confusion at mealtime with our permanent houseguests. Something missing in the bowl? Alma is, like, “Hey, boss, you got to be kidding.” Blaze is reevaluating everything she once believed in. Meanwhile, the recalls raise troubling questions for us, the management, such as: Who really makes pet food? And why does it include wheat gluten from the Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. in Wangdian, China? And how did this shipment of wheat gluten become contaminated with melamine, a compound used to make plastic forks?
Before the first recalls were announced last month, Alma and Blaze could count on one thing above all others: that as long as I am alive, it is my duty to feed them. Into their metal bowls a heaping cup of dry kibble would go and then — wait for it, wait for it — the sound of one of their cans of slop being opened. At that popping metallic pssst! the gals would literally groan with pleasure.
“For many cats and dogs who are sedentary neutered adults, who spend most of their time indoors — like a lot of humans — food is a major part of their life and their interaction with their owners,” Tony Buffington, professor of veterinary sciences at Ohio State University and an expert in pet nutrition, told me.
No kidding. But what, really, is that grayish brown reconstituted lump in the can? I assumed it contained lamb lungs and chicken brains. But there’s a lot more. A 99-cent unit of “cuts and gravy” is the signal product of global industrialized food, where nothing is wasted, a brutal efficiency rules and ingredients are assembled from a relentlessly competitive international marketplace. There is no accident in a can of dog food. Just the opposite. The contents have been supplemented and fortified for nutritional, mineral and vitamin balance, the foods
Iprecisely engineered for smell, texture and palatability. (The makers want dogs to desire it, but not crave it, and they want its smell not to repulse owners.) And then they market it with all the cunning they can muster.
In the weeks since March 16, more than 100 dog and cat foods have been yanked. The recalls center on an outfit called Menu Foods and its plant in Kansas, and trust me, consumers were very surprised when they learned that Menu Foods makes din-din sold under dozens of pet food names, from the cheap generic store labels to the fancy “premium” offerings. A lot of familiar brands are on the recall lists, such as Alpo, Mighty Dog, Iams, Science Diet, Eukanuba, Gravy Train, Paws, Special Kitty and Ol’ Roy.
The recalls are unprecedented. There never has been anything as extensive before for animal or human foods. While the volume — 60 million cans and counting — is sizable, what is remarkable is the number of pet food makers involved. It’s almost all of them. (For a complete list, see www.fda.gov.)
“Some people are absolutely panicked,” said Bonnie Beaver, a professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University. “Some owners are going to home-cooking. But too much fat, and you’ve got a case of raging pancreatitis.”
Raging pancreatitis? See what I’m talking about? Friends have begun to share dog food recipes with me. There are pet cookbooks. There’s the bones and raw food, or BARF, diet. The buzz now? Organic pet food from local providers; nouvelle cuisine for cats.
What happened at the Menu Foods plant is still being investigated. But we do know that melamine causes kidney failure. I do not want to feed melamine to my dogs, though I am sure they would eat it, just as they once ate those designer beds.
At the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for oversight and investigation. It has confirmed 16 pet deaths, including those of “test animals,” reportedly employed by Menu Foods once suspicions of contamination arose. And some predict a far greater toll.
I propose that this is a rather big deal. The blogosphere is howling, and at dog parks everywhere, the food recalls and the response of the industry and government is Topic A. The FDA has been criticized as passive and weak, though it appears to have quickly mounted an investigation and assisted with the recalls. Perhaps, as Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “the system is broken-down.” Announcing his intent to hold hearings, he compared the FDA to “a fire department that is only called after the house is burned down.”
Then hurry up. Americans will spend $40 billion on their animals this year. There are 160 million dogs and cats in this country. But many who have pets don’t think of themselves as “owners,” or their “companion animals” as property. “When my mother asks me how her grandkid is doing, she’s talking about our dog,” Nemo, a poodle mix, said Ben Huh, a Seattle software developer who has been blogging up a storm on his site, Itchmo.com. Huh points out that in his city, dogs outnumber children two to one. For many people — alone, retired, young, relocated, childless, whatever — a dog or a cat is one of the central relationships in their lives.
There is a lot of lingering anger in the pet world about the food recalls. We just learned that the chief financial officer of Menu Foods Income Fund sold nearly half his shares in the pet food maker less than three weeks before it announced a widespread recall, according to insider trading reports. Menu’s CFO described it as “a horrible coincidence.”
When we heard about the recall last month, we tossed all the cans of Mighty Dog, which had one product on the recall list, but not our formula. Wary anyway, we switched to another favorite, Paul Newman’s Own Organic Chicken and Brown Rice (also not recalled). But then the dates of the recall were expanded, and several other pet food makers pulled their products. And then . . . I started grilling chickens for the dogs.
In time I got a grip. All that cooking was a hassle. And the dogs missed their cans of guts.