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You Are What You Eat: The Politics of Pet Food

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If you are a cat or dog owner, you almost certainly know about the pet food recall associated with numerous pet illnesses and deaths in recent months. But you probably don’t know much about the details, or the politics and economics behind the pet food debacle, or how these relate to your family’s food. If you thought the food safety problem was limited to pet foods… think again. The Bush administration has gutted the FDA, and all foods are now less safe.

What’s in pet food anyway? Why is it “pet food”, and not just regular food? Is it especially nutritious and wholesome for pets as most vets would have you believe? The answer is no, pet food is not especially wholesome or nutritious, and in fact it can contain things that should not be in food at all. There are two independent food streams in the United States, human food and pet/animal food. Neither is completely safe, but the animal food stream is particularly suspect.

Pet food is made from what giant, multinational agribusiness considers “byproducts” of human food production - stuff that is mostly unfit for human consumption. Much of it would become costly garbage if industry could not legally make it into dog and cat food. Basically, you would never feed it to your pet if you knew what was in it. Pet food agribusiness is a $30 billion a year mega-industry in the US, and it is growing every year.

The delightful industry term for animal byproducts is “offal” - carcass parts that cannot be used for human food, which are automatically slated for animal food production at the slaughterhouse. “Offal” has been estimated to amount to approximately 40 billion pounds per year in the US, and often contains significant amounts of rancid rendered fats, oils and grease. It also includes bacterial- or parasite-contaminated carcass parts which could not pass human food inspection. This is especially true because offal contains animal intestines and their contents, which are rich in e-coli. Next time you scrutinize the stuff in a can of cat or dog food… think “offal”.

On top of the issue of contaminated or diseased carcass parts there is now the looming issue of toxic Chinese food-additive contamination in many pet foods in the United States. It was a serious wake-up call for pet owners that so many different products produced by so many different pet food companies could all become contaminated. This fact showed clearly that both “premium” and plain pet foods contained low-quality ingredients from uncertain sources.

At first the contaminated pet food showed up mostly in the US, but eventually surfaced in other places, such as South Africa

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and Puerto Rico

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The critical questions quickly became “what poison” and “what source”? At first it was thought that a rat poison called aminopterin was responsible. Then the focus quickly shifted to a chemical called melamine, which is used primarily in the making of plastics. The culprit “food product” was thought to be contaminated wheat gluten from the Chinese manufacturer “Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co”. Because melamine contains a huge amount of nitrogen, it would give a very high “protein reading” when inspectors employed the simple chemical color test typically used to quickly assay protein content in a food product. This made some sense as to why melamine would show up at high levels in cheap Chinese wheat gluten product – as a despicable, unethical attempt to artificially jack up the protein rating.

However, there is a slight problem with the melamine hypothesis. The affected pets are thought to have died from kidney failure, but melamine is not known to cause kidney failure. The amount of melamine required to cause death is very large, far beyond the amount found in contaminated pet foods. The main health issues associated with chronic melamine exposure include cancer and reproductive damage. Indeed, there is no data that suggests that melamine even in significant doses can cause acute adverse effects such as kidney failure and death. The levels of melamine found in the pet food were far below those considered acutely toxic.

So what caused the animal sickness and death, and where did it come from? Some investigators have noted that ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in anti-freeze, does cause acute kidney failure in animals. Many pets die every year from drinking anti-freeze drained out of car radiators because it has a sweet smell and taste. However, it does not seem likely that sufficient levels of ethylene glycol could get into pet foods.

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John R. Moffett PhD is a research neuroscientist in the Washington, DC area. Dr. Moffett's main area of research focuses on the brain metabolite N-acetylaspartate, and an associated genetic disorder known as Canavan disease.

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