When dogs and cats began to sicken and die after eating certain brands of commercial food, the public had the right to expect swift action from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to resolve the situation. That's not what we got. Instead, FDA officials have dithered, hemmed and hawed and appear more interested in protecting manufacturers' reputations than in preventing more suffering and death.
Given the scope and tragedy of the FDA's failure to act, Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach should step down and allow a more capable leader to direct the agency.
The flaws in the agency's response became apparent soon after Menu Foods announced on March 16 that some of its products had led to kidney failure and death in dogs and cats. Rather than calling for an immediate recall of all brands that may have been contaminated, the FDA turned over all recall decisions to the manufacturers and referred the public to Menu Foods' Web site for list of contaminated foods rather than providing the information itself, as would be expected of a public agency. At a March 26 news conference, an agency official tellingly referred to the pet-food manufacturers as his "colleagues at Menu Foods."
In the weeks since, the agency has failed to identify the contaminant with any certainty. Menu Foods first announced that aminopterin, a chemical used to poison rats, was found in canned foods. But it wasn't long before the FDA identified wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, a chemical used in making plastics, as the culprit. We still don't know for certain, and two independent laboratories are now claiming that the FDA was wrong-melamine is not the contaminant.
The FDA is so far sticking to the melamine theory but has inexplicably refused to name a dry pet-food manufacturer believed to have received the suspected contaminated ingredient and hasn't recalled brands of dry food that may be affected. When asked about this at the March 26 news conference, Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, excused the agency's lack of action by saying, "This is an ongoing investigation."
But even this excuse is couched in misleading and contradictory statements about the agency's responsibility in investigating the scandal. Dr. Sundlof has said to the media, "There are really no differences in the regulation of animal food and the regulation of human food. The same people that inspect human food plants also inspect pet food plants." But it turns out, according to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), that the FDA hasn't inspected the New Jersey Menu Foods plant, one of two implicated in the contamination, since 2004.
In the meantime, the FDA further confused the issue by putting this on its Web site: "FDA has limited enforcement resources that are focused on human food safety issues." This is apparently how the agency explains away the fact that it isn't regulating pet foods, as it is congressionally mandated to do.
Rep. DeLauro puts it bluntly: "Based on the evidence so far, it would appear that FDA is failing its responsibilities to protect animals from unsafe food as much as it is failing to protect American consumers."
In addition to the FDA commissioner's resignation, a thorough investigation into the agency's failure is in order. The pet-food industry and the agency charged with regulating it have failed to protect the most vulnerable members of society. It won't bring back the animals who have died and it won't offer solace to the people who have lost their family members, but it might prevent another tragedy.
Alka Chandna, Ph.D., is a senior researcher with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org. She and her husband share their lives with a rescued cat who, thankfully, has remained healthy throughout the current crisis.