A bad menu for Fido and Fluffy

by Jim Longworth

News of the tainted pet food scandal seems to get worse with each passing week. 

Earlier this year we learned that aminopterin (a drug used to kill rats) had found its way into canned food made by the Menu Foods Income Fund company. But scientists at Menu initially reported that there was no proof their products had caused rapid kidney failure in cats and dogs.    

Not long after that the company announced that the offending substance was really melamine, a chemical used in fertilizer. Soon more than 60 million cans of pet food were recalled as a result.

Then, several weeks ago came the news that tainted wheat gluten from China was also used by Menu, and in more than just wet food products. Suddenly, the recall was expanded to include dry food and dog biscuits.

And just last week the recall was expanded again, this time to include all foods containing rice protein which, it seems, was also laced with melamine-filled wheat gluten.

In one four-week period alone, the FDA received 12,000 complaints of sickness and death due to the toxic food, and those numbers are still growing. Meanwhile, veterinary hospitals nationwide have reported that over 40,000 animals have been affected.

The problems with this tragic saga are as numerous as the serious questions they have generated, among them:

How could rat poisoning and fertilizer compounds get into pet food in the first place?

Why was wheat gluten being imported when America is a leading producer of wheat?

How could one company, Menu Foods, make essentially the same product and put 100 different labels on it?

How could premium brand pet foods such as Iams and Eukanuba defraud and deceive consumers for years about their supposed unique blend, without the FDA investigating?

And how could veterinarians hawk these fake premiums brands as a means to a healthy lifestyle without knowing that it was the same product as hundreds of other cheaper brands?

Congress should compel Menu Foods, Iams and others to answer these and other questions, and, if their answers are suspect, the offending parties should, at the very least, stand trial for multiple counts of animal cruelty.

In some sense, ill-conceived trade agreements are to blame for the imported wheat gluten. According to the Associated Press, since 2001, American food makers looking for bargains on imported ingredients have more than doubled their business with low-cost nations such as China, Mexico and India. And those countries have a horrendous track record when it comes to quality control.

Meanwhile, FDA inspectors admit that incoming products, not individual ingredients, have been their priority, thus the reason for tainted shipments reaching our dinner tables and our pets’ food bowls. That’s why Congress should immediately impose a moratorium on all food products from China and other offending nations. Then Pelosi and company should strip President Bush of his fast-track authority when it expires in June so that future trade agreements are required to pass majority muster.

As to the tainted pet food specifically, our government should also be more attentive to the relationships between manufacturers and distributors. That’s because the real villains of this drama are the hundred or so lazy, greedy, deceptive companies who for so many years have sold their pet food without advertising that they didn’t actually produce it, and now are shocked to learn what is in it. 

The bottom line is we should be able to trust brand names, not fear them.

That’s why I am also calling on Congress to pass legislation requiring food companies to actually manufacture the products they sell.

Animal cruelty comes in many forms, but there may be no worse example of it than big companies who profit from cutting corners on ingredients and inspections. It’s time to bite the hand that feeds us.

Jim Longwoth is host of “Triad Today” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).