Is That Wheat Gluten in My Bowl?

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By William Booth

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

“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, 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.



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